Shifting sands into heart sense

So much in my life recently has been about sifting through my history and understanding much more about how that history that has led to me being the person I have been and how I am aiming now to be the emotionally regulated adult more of the time. It’s good to have a goal!

Over the last 20 years, I have worked through talking therapies, mostly in the psychodynamic or person-centered fields as these have the depth and breadth of psychical understanding that has resonated with me. I spent four years training as a therapist in the nineties and then another ten years working as a person-centred coach and mentor, so I have some personal experience too.

Books on my nightstand have usually been in the field of depth psychology, or therapy. For example “The Therapeutic Relationship” by Petruska Clarkson, or the “Boundaries of the Soul: The practice of Jung’s Psychology” by June Singer.  Then I expanded the repertoire into mindfulness and the overlap with healthy mind, this led me to such books as “The Mindful Way through Depression” by Mark Williams and “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat Zinn, and many many others in similar vein; books by Pema Chodron, Brene Brown, Oriah Mountain Dreamer. On it went but a great deal of this was “head-sense” for me and somehow I had yet to find the route to connect it all to “heart- sense”, that discernment that I feel connected, I am integrated mind, body and soul.

Gradually over the last four years, I have been doing the work I have described here on the blog. More and more it seems I am turning to that heart-sense, tuning in to my heart. I had already begun to understand that a healthy mind also needs a healthy body. But it is more than that; it also needs a connection to that body, a direct route to listen, to deeply listen to the small voice that has spent many years muted or indeed mute.

I began that part of the voyage of discovery about 18 months ago by going to see a massage therapist regularly to help me make connections to my body. Even to stay mentally in my body while someone is touching me can be a challenge so this was not an easy ask for me, or even at times a pleasant experience. Over the last year I have begun to relax and enjoy being massaged more – trust is such a huge part of any relationship and does take time to develop – it’s great that I can now do this.

I also began practising yoga this summer. My body was telling me it wanted to move more, and yoga is a mindful way to build stamina and body awareness. I did a few uTube videos and found a way to make up a flow that suited me and takes about half an hour. I do that about three times a week, I aim for every day but sometimes life happens!

I have moved more into the mindful presence of yoga and seen, or more accurately felt, my balance, my posture, and my energy improve. I have also been informed by my massage therapist that my muscles are more open to deeper work and so there is and will be, a greater benefit to me of the work she is doing. I hope that this opening will continue and as it does I can move more and more mindfully back into my body and unmute the small voice that it shares with me, if I listen.

Being a grown up

I am currently 51. You would think I have been an adult for a while, even allowing for new thinking that adolescence goes on until the mid-twenties still gives me 25 years, right? Uuhhh, no, not really. I feel like my adult kicked in emotionally about three years ago and so is still in development and settling in. Surely, yes, I did adulting and fulfilled many mundane tasks and responsibilities, all the while, inside, feeling a fraud or like a frightened child.

I finished my first degree at 21, and then I started professional training and got married at 24. By this stage I had bought a flat, was running a mortgage and running a household. All of these are deemed grown-up activities and responsibilities, and I performed this adulting with outward ease. Looking back I can see I got on the conveyer belt of adulthood after university and fell into job/house/mortgage/marriage, what might be termed conventional paths of a person brought up in middle-class England in the late 20th century.

The catch for me is, I can see now, I literally did fall into these things, as one might fall into a river. I was wandering along the path and not looking where I was going, turned around and slipped into a current stronger than Myself. It feels like I didn’t think through any alternatives, I am not sure I thought at all, I was fulfilling my destiny as a child in my adoptive family and destinies don’t often include personal choice. There was no coercion; I thought I was happy with my “choices” but that thinking proved flawed.

I was brought up in a home where education was everything and luckily I was bright enough to do well at school. Mum was set on it, her parents, from mining stock in the northeast, both went to university in the 1920s and so there was absolutely nothing more important than getting into university. Come hell or high water, and there were plenty of both, my brother and I were to study, pass exams and go to college. This was so expected that it was only years later I realised I never considered anything, not even for a second, except to go to university after school. Nowadays gap years and other routes to employment are perfectly usual but I did not have a thought of it. Friends of mine did go Interrailing in Europe, which was the closest equivalent at the time, but I did not consider that as a possibility!

In fact, for me, studying was a saving grace. I worked and worked; my study was a safe place to be in the shark-infested waters of the family home or the world outside. It was where I incessantly studied or practised the piano, both acceptable activities. This became an issue in my later school years as we all felt the rising crescendo of marital and emotional disharmony and mental illness in the family. I worked more and more, probably obsessively, so much so that dad attempted to shut me out of the study during my last few months of the sixth form in fear of my own wobbly mental health. It was not a great move as I felt more out of kilter and lost without my safety net. Notwithstanding, I still managed to get good grades at A level and my passage to university was secured.

At university I floundered. Although academically I did OK, and somehow ended up with an upper second (which pleased mum – and that mattered!) I did not feel confident or able to have fun. In my journal of the time I recorded, “What it is to realise you are unsure of everything. I want to be able to be me and not worry what others think and feel all the time.” and “I don’t want to go out to pubs and clubs, I want to be in, I am used to it. I don’t want to be an outward extrovert, I don’t want that at all, it’s surface life not inside.” Also at this time, I had a boyfriend whom I relied on heavily and whom I nearly fell into marrying, this would not have been a success! (In fact, my history with boys/men is messed up but this is a post for another time!)

The idea that adulthood should not start until later into the twenties strikes me as an accurate one, at least for me. I look now with hindsight and more maturity, seeing I was incredibly young and emotionally unready when I was taking on all those adulting roles in my first career and marital relationship. I was swept away further down the river.

This river induced a kind of hypnosis, and I continued on the adulthood conveyor belt by moving into a career in finance – so far away from my natural bent, which involves words or people development. I did not know myself enough or have the capacity at that time to make a better decision. I desired a” career” because I felt it would please my dad, but mum always maintained that they were both flummoxed as to why I chose accountancy!  I believe I wanted him to be proud of me and it felt like I didn’t have a choice; my field of vision of acceptable and safe activity was incredibly narrow and restrictive. In fact, I came to realise I am dyslexic with figures because calling over columns of figures in accounts made me panic and I could not transpose what I saw on the page easily into the numbers to say out loud. I really struggled to succeed, ending up being made redundant from my first job because I failed my exams.

It was as I approached my thirties that I became conscious of the current I was caught in. D and I made an abrupt house move south, completely away from home for the last ten years, this displaced me and I felt more and more lost and confused. That life change was sufficient, (along with some disturbing news about my past, a story for another time) to tip me into what I termed my mid-life crisis, although it was a little early! I began therapy for the first time, but continued to struggle in my professional and personal life for another five years, feeling often like I was out of control and in a large vehicle with no brakes – like the bus in the film Speed. I deem these years the Fuckwittery years, and I don’t think I am in a place where I can share them here, but by 2000 I was a bit more together and chose to start a new year by leaving my job and changing career.

This felt like I was beginning to take back some control, starting to climb out of the fast flowing river. I spent the next ten years progressing my career as a coach and personal development professional, both gaining qualification and credibility in my new field. Still, I felt a fraud and at times the frightened child inside would wreak havoc with exploding anxiety and fear – often expressed as drunken anger – none of which is conducive to a happy marriage!

Starting a new relationship with J in 2010 was another huge life change and that, plus my best friend dying early in 2011, and having enormous work stress caused a mental collapse that saw me off work for six months, only to go back and be made redundant! I have a series of events that I call my “Metre of Misery” that flow from 2009 to 2012 – literally a timeline on the back of wallpaper that is one metre long and causes therapists to raise their eyebrows when they see it. On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale I was off the scale!

The support of therapists is weaved in and out of this story, and I am grateful to the three ladies who helped at different times.  As I have recorded here on the blog, it is the death of my parents and the age of fifty that finally seem to have birthed my adulthood. I am looking forward to enjoying it now!

What do you need me to be?

It would appear that I have asked this question unconsciously in every interaction or relationship I have ever had; I want to know what you need me to be so I can best ensure that you stay happy. In everyday parlance this doesn’t sound like a bad thing;  wanting people you care about to be happy –  but it has an insidious underbelly if it is the only question you ask, not also asking what do I want to be, or what do I want from this relationship.

I became aware of this chameleon feeling a while ago as I worked on myself both in therapy and in my professional development as a coach. It is a strange experience when something that feels as natural as breathing becomes obvious to you, a behaviour you previously didn’t see becomes visible – or more than that, becomes visible and feels odd. It moves from a subjective experience to an objective one and the sensation felt like I was acting outside myself; I was watching myself during interactions and I did not have control over my responses.

This is puzzling when it first occurs. Insight is a weird and wonderful thing, wonderful in that it gives you an opportunity to change (the first step to a solution is to be able to recognise the problem) and weird because it’s awkward, like if you try to remember how to walk downstairs the chances are you will trip up; as soon as an activity we have performed out of conscious awareness is brought to consciousness we become incompetent!

So, there I was, in a psychological way trying to walk up the stairs consciously and often feeling like I was falling. My automatic response, without thinking, had been to ask the question, but now I realised that the question wasn’t always helpful and I had to work out what I wanted to do. I remember one of the first times I consciously worked on making a choice for myself, it was tough. My mum wanted me to go with her on a weekend break sometime in the early noughties, I had done this before with her but I found it difficult, not relaxing. It was also emotionally exhausting; being myself with mum was only possible in fleeting moments, mostly I worked hard at being what she needed at any point, and this had been my life’s work. I said no to this newly suggested weekend away, this invoked a hurt reproachful response from mum, and one that even made her Christmas newsletter months later when she said I “refused” to go with her so she had to ask the neighbour because it was already booked! I had responded with trepidation, knowing this may be the response and I had to work hard at maintaining a boundary so that I didn’t give in and go just to please her. This is the secondary fallout from development after you make a change to behaviour or attitude; some people can’t appreciate the change and pressurise you to return to “normal”. This old habit of mine had been to ignore my own wishes or feelings and please the Other, I had come to psychological damage previously – it had to stop!

Actually, I had come to genuine physical damage too. My first husband is a beautiful person but he and I liked doing very different things; he loves the outdoors; camping walking, cycling, running, water-skiing, windsurfing. He loves practical doing and the making and doing of gardening projects, the building of things and the opportunity to be active. I love reading and being in the emotional space with people, I love my coaching work and my one to one or workshop work with people developing their potential, and seeing them fly. I love the drama and beauty of the mental, intellectual and emotionally mature life – some academic, some philosophical, some just connections with others at a meaningful level.  This did not make us very compatible as we grew up from the very young people we had been when we met and fell in love in our early twenties. I did try the physical life, I did try the things he loved and did well, except I fell off jet skis, I hated camping, I am scared to death on a bike because I have a very poor sense of balance, but I did nearly die from water-skiing. We were in Portugal on holiday and we went out for a lesson. I can swim but not well and I am scared of deep water, but along I went.  There were four of us, and Jack the instructor. I went second. I have very little memory of getting into the water except I was brave and my heart was racing. I had seen how far away the coast seemed as we had bombed away from it in Jack’s little speedboat. I remember the sensation of my arms being pulled from their sockets as I was tugged along on the water surface, roped to the back of the boat and then attempting to stand up on the ski. I did not manage it, I slipped and fell, the ski banging my head as I went under the water, I could not breathe, and I have a visual memory of seeing the never-ending water at eye-level as I bobbed up to the surface. Jack raced the boat around and looked anxiously in the water at me, his previous chatty patter halted. I was hauled out, I shivered and was silent. I have never been back in the sea since.

I have strived subsequently to these events to maintain a level of awareness that enables me to question myself, my motives for acting. I fail spectacularly sometimes. I will find out halfway through an activity or event when I notice that I am feeling resentful, it’s a red flag that I probably don’t want to be there. Or a plan will be made and I feel scared or anxious about it, then I feel I am triggered by my feelings and I look to spend some time reviewing what is my wish, what do I want to do?

It doesn’t mean I never want to do things for others, or even that I will not put others first at times. Love and compassion are great motivators to be aware of. I wish to practice the four brahmavihāras; Buddhist virtues, loving-kindness and compassion are two of those, so I have to be awake to my own needs and the needs of others.

The aetiology of my chameleon is not complicated to work out, even if it is complex in its effect. As I have written before, I began a second life at three weeks in foster care and then, at seven and a half weeks, a third new life in another house with another primary carer. As an alien in sequential new worlds, my reptile brain was flooded with stress hormones and needed to work quickly, if primitively, to survive. It seems my flight, fight or freeze response was to freeze; I was a “good” baby, a compliant child, I froze, and, once I had worked out what was expected of me, I did that. My mum said I was fine as a younger child and teenager; it was when I left home that I “became difficult”! I was attempting to exert my independence, be myself, but that was not OK. It was many years, into my forties before I really, truly understood all I have written here, and only now, into my fifties can I see what I need to do to honour my own needs and ask myself, “What do you need me to be?”

Story of a search

I knew I wasn’t theirs and it had always seemed perfectly normal to me; it was natural not to look like my parents, or feel a sense of family.  Then when I was eight, dad handed me a small brown envelope addressed to him and mum. In the top left corner in his hesitant hand and blue ink was the simple word “DETAILS”. I had watched as he fetched the small package from a box on the top shelf of the cupboard that housed his coats and jackets and now we were sat on my parents’ bed, side by side. From inside the envelope I drew a folded and faded yellowing piece of paper. Ink from the type was visible on the reverse, and the origami performed to originally get this letter into the tiny envelope had to be undone.  Dated 25.1.67, the note informed my parents that in six days they could travel from their home near Birmingham to “meet” a baby at 12 noon in central London, with “a view to taking her home”. This was my first glimpse at my history and I read that I was three weeks premature, and was considered a “very pretty, small baby, with good features, flat ears, and a well-shaped head.”  I also learnt that my name at that time was Anna Louise Munro.

The rest of the letter was only two short paragraphs, one about my mother, one concerning my father. Reading on I discovered that my birth mother was then an unmarried, attractively slim, 19-year-old Australian who’s “very musical and also good at sports, horse-riding in particular”. It said that my birth father was British born but half Spanish, also musical as he played the guitar, and he was an engineer in the Merchant Navy, having gone to sea at 16. The letter went on in a manner that I still find terse; “The girl met him on the boat coming to England.  She did not see him after that and he never knew about the baby.”

I cannot recall now how I felt on reading these few short lines about my start in life and parentage, but I am certain I did not anticipate how life-changing these snippets of information would eventually be for me, nor did I stop to appreciate the huge impact on my adoptive parents when they had first received the news.  My eight-year-old self accepted it all purely at face value, but I could soon recount that letter word for word. That status quo lasted for over twenty years. I knew that those people from the letter were out there somewhere but they were one dimensional, stuck in that sixties moment when the letter was written. Furthermore, for me growing up, having one set of parents was trouble enough – I didn’t need anymore!

When I turned 30 I began to be more curious, I wanted to discover more about me, about my birth parents, and I started the process of learning how that could happen. A national charity called Norcap existed at that time for people affected by the triangle of adoption; birth parents, adoptive parents as well as adoptees. It had a history of making connections for those separated at birth – a reunion of the lost family.

After joining Norcap the next step was to apply see my adoption records and arrange to get my birth certificate. In England it’s a legal requirement for an adoptee placed for adoption before 1975 to be counselled by social services prior to receiving their records because before this date all adoptions were closed and no contact was thought ever to be made. I sat through this interview with almost perfunctory ease and my adoption records and birth certificate were requested.

My ease in the situation abruptly changed when my birth certificate arrived on a cold day in January. Having spent all my life thinking I was fostered from birth, I was overwhelmed, and sobbed as I found out my mother’s address was the same as mine when she registered the birth: we were still living together! This meant that I spent my first Christmas and New Year with my birth mother.  (When I got my records I found out we had been discharged from hospital on Christmas Eve, two weeks after I was born, and had then gone to a mother and baby home where we stayed until January 4nd.) This reaction was to become familiar: new information would rock my world, my view of myself had to shift and I had to rewrite part of my life story.

The local social services were proficient and quickly found my adoption records, a feat that amazes me still – paper records from thirty years ago found in what I imagine to be a very large warehouse!  On the day of my appointment I went to the small social services office in the centre of town during my lunch break from work.

Here the revelations multiplied; I found out my birth father’s name (of course it wasn’t on my birth certificate as he was not there then); I found out that he was married – the “details” letter had said that he was unmarried; I found out about the adoption process and got to see the application for adoption as filled in by my birth mother; I found out my grandmother had come over from Australia and was with her daughter at the time I was being handed over for adoption. I remember the social worker sitting with me and asking me how I felt about all this – the papers I think she meant – I wasn’t sure but it was too immense to comment on the entire story in that cramped upstairs office – the whole thing felt surreal. I remember she was appalled at the lack of information and wanted to comfort me that there would be more nowadays, including photos and maybe a letter for me from my birth mother. That seemed too much to hope for!

Most disconcertingly of all at that time I found out that my birth mother was in fact from Papua New Guinea, and, although Australian, not from the mainland as I had previously thought – again, information in the “details” letter didn’t match the reality. I felt a loss of identity or possibly homeland – another big shift for me to adjust to –  I had spent my childhood with a large map of Australia on my wall, but only the mainland. This was not, apparently, the right map!

From this meeting I had the excitement of getting to take home the letter written by my birth mother passing on my birth certificate to the adoption agency. This was my first real thing of hers; I treasured it and read it often, trying to imagine the person who wrote it. It was the only original I was allowed to keep – all the rest were diligently photocopied and presented to me, I treasured them just the same. Information had been rationed and any new piece vital at this stage, I felt.

After this heady and life changing time I didn’t do anything else for six years. Looking back now it seems I needed to come to terms with all that I had learnt, and integrate this into my life and history. I wasn’t really contemplating actually searching for a birth parent, let alone finding one!

I stayed a member of Norcap, and read all the newsletter’s reunion stories, often crying at ones that tugged at my feelings. Norcap had my name on both the National contact register and the one maintained by Norcap but neither had any matches. I remember getting the acknowledgement letter of my entry in each case and being really disappointed that my birth mother wasn’t looking for me.

Gradually I came to thinking about how it would be for the letter to arrive saying there was a match on the contact register, or how it would feel to see my name and my birth mother’s in the reunion page in the newsletter. I started to want this more and more…

In the spring of 2003 I went to Norcap and asked them to help me. I searched the records in the Norcap offices near Oxford and talked to a researcher, but to no avail. Even though I was born in London and adopted through a UK adoption agency it would appear that my birth mother had gone back overseas. Norcap staff suggested that I contact a researcher in Australia and recommended one to me – then it all seemed to happen at once. Within a week of the researcher receiving my information, she had made an electoral roll match that appeared to be my birth mother. I tried to work out how I felt about this and what I should do; this was not so easy.

During my search, I had been in contact with a couple of Aussies who had lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG) around the time my birth mother did. The contact was made through a website forum, where ex-PNG residents reminisced.  Interestingly, all the people who helped me from that site were touched by adoption issues sometime in their lives; there was a lot of empathy and understanding around. At the same time as I got the message from the researcher that my birth mother was alive and well (a great relief, but a scary reality too) I got news, via the forum, that she had an entry on the Aussie version of Friends Reunited on the web. When I looked up the entry it validated what the researcher said – we had a match!

In November, after applying to Norcap for an intermediary I took the step of asking that contact be made. I was sure now that this was what I wanted, and it couldn’t happen soon enough, although I was terrified that my birth mother would not want to know.  Happily, this was not the case and she replied by e-mail to my intermediary, Wendy, the very day she got the letter, saying she was surprised to receive it now it had finally come but had been expecting it. Margaret wanted to know how long it had taken to find her and had thought about looking for me, but resisted, not knowing what I knew of my history, or even if I knew I was adopted. I really appreciated this thoughtfulness given my disappointment of not finding a match on the contact registers; it helped me to hear she’d been thinking of me.

Wendy and Margaret had along phone conversation and then Wendy rang me to debrief. I was sat in my car outside my therapist’s house when I took the call – probably an appropriate place to be!  My heart thundering as I tried to take notes to record all Wendy was telling me. I still have them, written balancing on the steering wheel while juggling my mobile phone; they feel like the first precious things of contact and connection that I had been longing for.

Now there was a more tangible, three-dimensional history. I began filling in the blanks by email and putting the facts straight about my first weeks of life, although this job never seems to end as it takes some time to be comfortable asking tricky or very personal questions. It can take a while to absorb the answers too.

I am excited to learn every little thing and it was an amazing time, emails flew back and forth in flurries – the honeymoon period of reunion. I had to come to term with more big shifts in perception, such as being the oldest of four kids in my birth mother’s family, whereas I am the younger of two in my adoptive one. I also now know that she did see my father after the trip over from Australia, but didn’t stay in touch when it turned out he was married, and she says she still didn’t tell him about me. (I have more information about him nowadays too – but that’s a story for another time…)

In addition, I got to see people who look like me for the first time in my life.  My birthday in 2003 was very special as I received photos of my birth mother and new-found sisters; they were a marvellous birthday present.

Finally, I had a family I could call my own.

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.

 

 

 

 

Dad’s story – my eulogy read at his funeral

James Peter Arnold was born in May 1933 in Swanage on the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset. His parents ran a small holding in the neighbouring village of Corfe Castle where his dad was also a driving instructor.

Dad spent his first eleven years in Corfe, sharing life with his parents, his sister, Jill, born a few years later and his cousins who also lived in Dorset. He went to the village primary school to begin with but his parents had aspirations for him so at eight he went to Hillcrest Preparatory school in Swanage.

I think he enjoyed those days in Dorset, he told me of walking over the fields to Dancing Ledge and swimming in the sea, as well as being out on the hills over Corfe Common.

Growing up around animals on the smallholding his love of all things furry and four legged was born and we can think now of his menagerie of cats and dogs that accompanied him through his life.

At eleven he was sent to Gresham’s, a boarding school near Holt in Norfolk and he remained there completing A levels. His parents dreamt of a doctor in the family but unfortunately, dad was not too great at science!

He spent the next five years working in and around London at London Transport and at Vickers, both in admin posts. He was heard proudly boasting in later years of having signed the Official Secrets Act at Vickers, but of course, he couldn’t say why!

In 1956, at 23, he applied to the School of Librarianship at Loughborough College, where he spent a couple of years becoming a Chartered Librarian, the career he would follow for the rest of his working life.

He loved the classification work and the book binding elements of the course particularly. And it was here that he met Alfreda, our mum.

They were married in March 1959, a small wedding with just close family. They started out married life in Northamptonshire but jobs moved them around the country. By the time Chris, their son arrived in 1963 they were living in Clacton on Sea and by the time Rosemary arrived (that’s me!)  in 1966 they were living in Wall Heath in the suburbs of Birmingham.

Mum and dad could not have children of their own so Chris and I were adopted. Sometimes this fact feels easy and sometimes more difficult, but dad never once made a distinction; we are his children he would say and nothing else was important.

1968 saw a move to Doncaster and dad became a district librarian with particular responsibilities for the mobile libraries.  I think this was a job he really enjoyed and would like to have stayed in but the local government reform of 1974 saw his job literally disappear as the West Ridings vanished!

The family moved first to the moors over the west side of Doncaster and then finally to Mirfield as dad got a senior job in Kirklees libraries, based in Huddersfield. He stayed there until he was made redundant in 1985.

During all these moves and changes, one constant for the family was the annual pilgrimage at half term down to Dorset to see family and friends. Dad’s dad had died suddenly in 1960 and I know this was a massive loss for him, his sister moved away to live in Switzerland and married over there so only his mum remained and she stayed in Corfe until she died in 1998.

Every year we would go and stay with Granny Goose, we all called her this as one legacy from the small holding days was she still kept geese in her back garden. Dad’s Uncle Emil and Auntie Joan lived at the seaside at Swanage so some days were spent down there as a family or on Studland beach nearby.

Dad didn’t have a great number of hobbies during his working life but he had inherited a stamp collection from his grandfather on his 21st birthday so this was where his love of classification and order would be exhibited. He was not a fastidious man in many ways (who can forget the cat haired trousers and the fights to get him to change out of them to go out for meals!?) but the stamp collection in big leather bound files with thick squared paper pages classified by country was pristine. Sunday afternoon he would spend sorting and sticking in collections that arrived, first day covers or single stamps he wanted.

His other great love was, as I have said, the furries that he chose to spend his life with. His beloved Susan, the spaniel he had as a young man, and then Furzy and Pearl, the dog and cat Chris and I knew first as children.  Then numerous cats and dogs, all special in their own way and all, of course, great providers of the pet hair we fought over!

Dad seemed to have a way of collecting waif and strays so the pets he had were always from shelters or ones that literally came in from the street.  In the later years he and I shared many calls over Tommy, the feral ginger tomcat he worked really hard to tame. Then there was Jack who was so timid he literally hid under cupboards. Dad got them to come to him and it was immensely pleasing for him to succeed at gaining their trust and love.

His special attention was also directed outside, where he always put food out for the birds and particularly at Great Hale he was delighted with “his” family of hedgehogs always fed in the shed.

After his working life was done, dad was heavily involved in voluntary work. He used to visit Kirkwood Hospice in Huddersfield and drive for visitors and patients there. Once he and mum moved to Lincolnshire to retire in 1991 he was involved in the hospice in Sleaford as well as the voluntary car service in Heckington, where they lived.

Dad was fond of secrets, so he was ideal for a secret society and he became a Freemason during his forties and remained so for many years, joining lodges in Yorkshire and his alumni, Greshams. I am not sure this was a popular move for everyone as mum was upset about the time it took up and Granny had religious reservations. Nevertheless, he persevered and rose through their ranks, changing the colour of his pinny (his word!) as he went!

The regalia were kept pristine, in sharp contrast to his other attire; I remember as a child we always had running conversations about where the yolk from his breakfast boiled egg might end up on his tie!

As part of the Arnold family heritage he became a liveryman of the Fishmongers’ Company, when he was 21, as his father and grandfather had before him. Fishmongers is one of the oldest livery guilds in the City of London and has close ties to his school, Gresham’s.

Invitations to black tie dinners in the Fishmongers’ Hall by Blackfriars, and to the oldest sculling race in the country, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, along the Thames were exciting to attend and dad tried to rotate his invitations so everyone in the wider family had a trip down to London.

Dad was not always the easiest of people to be with or to know. As his family, we saw the stresses and strains of his life and the struggles he had at times, but I know he lived in Great Hale as he wished and was more content here.

He had his animals and he had his own particular habits. He loved to read thrillers and crime stories and he would always enjoy a good classic old film on the telly, as well as liking a variety of musical styles from baroque and early church music to jazz and swing, but he never modernised beyond about 1950 to be honest! This lot plus his voluntary work and such groups as Probus filled his time well.

He relished time travelling with cruising on the high seas being a great pleasure. Sometimes he and mum would go off but he also went round the Baltic and across to the Caribbean as a solo traveller.

He gave Chris and me a huge gift last year when he bought us, as a family, a 5-day cruise on the Saga Pearl. We mended bridges and cleared air that needed clearing, and he gifted us the opportunity to become a family again.  I will always be grateful to him for that, particularly as largesse was not his usual style!

He was very distressed when mum passed away in 2014 and although their marriage had its ups and downs they lived in a sort of symbiosis and it was a tough blow when she died so suddenly.

His own physical health was always a struggle and he succumbed to a heart attack only a year later, as well as beginning the tricky period where falling became a real issue. This led to an unfortunate stay in Boston Pilgrim in September last year, whereupon he was so ill it was deemed unsafe for him to return home to live alone.

This was when York House in Billinghay came into our lives. He went there last October and lived there until his death, being rude to staff and blustering at every opportunity! My brother and I both visited with our partners at various times over his stay and over his last week in particular. I can say we were all moved by the level of affection and care he garnered from the staff; for all his grumpy old man (his words, again) he had a blue eyed twinkle and a little wry smile that was hard to resist even when he was being outrageous!

As I have made phone calls and talked to people about him after his death they have said he was funny or he was clever or witty, and I have heard he was loved. Thank you to all those here, and elsewhere, that helped him when we, his family, could not.

His attitude to being over there (gesture to the coffin) can really be summed up in a comment from him. Chris, Jane, John and I sat in his room at York House the afternoon after he died doing some initial sorting out, we sat as a family and laughed and cried as you do at these times.

Dad’s love of order had been so systematic that he had planned for events that needed to be attended to after his death.  He had given to Chris some years ago a Life Book as a way to annotate the necessary actions for dealing with any illness, and to help us at this sad time. Dad only wanted it to be used after he died so a section about medication was completed in his spidery writing. It said “Not filled in because when this is read I will be dead” and dead was underlined twice.

RIP 30.05.1933  – 08.08.2017