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.