For adoptees, having our own children can raise a plethora of emotions, all of which can be difficult to navigate. Giving birth is such a primitive, visceral and life-changing experience, it will understandably make us think back to our own beginnings and of our birth families, primarily our mother. It’s not just an issue for women: men who are adopted can and will struggle, too, their own children raising uncomfortable feelings about their own pasts and the birth mother who gave them away. Sadness, grief, disappointment, overwhelm, curiosity and even anger are all normal responses to giving birth and/or having children, although we are often led to believe the only appropriate response is profound happiness and excitement often leaving us to feel ashamed of our feelings. Today I would like to share some of my experiences as a mother and an adoptee and the struggles I experienced.
I had my daughter quite young, strangely at the same age my mother was when she had me, a fact that has not gone unnoticed. I’d been in a relationship for a couple of years with a boy my family didn’t like, mainly because he was a “foreigner” and not very bright, and when he walked he moved his head from side to side in a rhythmic motion meaning you could always spot him in a crowd. I did like him at the time, although it didn’t last. He had been raised in a devout catholic family who fervently believed in traditional family values: mum stayed home to raise kids, keep house and feed everyone salad, pie and chips; dad went out to work and brought home whatever money was left after he had flung most of it on the horses. My boyfriend seemed to think I would be happy to bunker down into domesticity: keep our house clean and tidy, learn how to cook elaborate meals, (in just one saucepan) and pop out babies every year on demand. I personally couldn’t think of anything worse and I still can’t, and so when I found out I was pregnant, I wasn’t exactly over the moon.
Finding out I had a life inside me felt terrifying. I had experienced some problems with Polycystic Ovaries before the pregnancy, so had to take an aspirin every day, just in case my own body decided to reject the embryo and send it down and out the chute. It seemed an odd thing to be an adoptee whose body isn’t keen on carrying your own child. Every day I took my pill and every day I wondered when I would forget; when I would miss a day by accident and the baby I was carrying would die on my watch. As the pregnancy progressed, my anxiety lessened. There is something about a bump; the solidity of it perhaps, the visual manifestation that reassured me that everything would be fine. I say reassured me, once I realised the child would make it, I became terrified of it being born. The last few months, whilst I chugged down ice cold water, bathed toast in Marmite and ate my own body weight in vegetables, inside I wondered how an earth I would cope.
My daughter arrived two weeks late on a warm day in June and I wasn’t prepared. The birth was long and arduous like most first time births and during most it I was quietly delirious, begging alternatively for either a cup of tea or to be put to sleep. When it was over, and I looked at my daughter, I didn’t really feel anything, except an urgent need to put her back inside me and carry her around for a few months until I felt sufficiently prepared to be a mother. I remember thinking, at the time, is this how my mother felt? Did she feel so lost and overwhelmed, she decided the only alternative was to dump me in another woman’s arms?
Three days after my daughter was born, my musing came to a standstill when she nearly died. She’d had to have a minor operation but being so small, she couldn’t wake up from the anaesthetic and she nearly slept herself away. It felt, I think understandably, that my pregnancy and now the beginning of my child’s life had been overshadowed by the possibility of death; the ultimate form of abandonment in life and my greatest fear. Fortunately, she recovered and we both left hospital, returned home to begin our new lives together as a family of three, but in just four weeks, I had become a single parent and was now uncertain and confused about my future.
Whilst my daughter was a baby, my thoughts often settled on my mother and how she gave me up for adoption. How I would often think do you give away your own child and then continue about your life when there is so obviously a part of you missing. I could understand if she had been forced or coerced, (I later found out she had been) but if the decision had been her own, made with her own sense of agency, then I found it impossible to comprehend. As much as I may have been overwhelmed by single parenthood or the responsibility of another life being solely reliant upon me, I could never have given up and walked away. Even the idea of handling my swathed babe with her olive skin, and chocolate brown eyes over to a clinical social worker like a parcel in brown paper would make me tear up and physically ache. However, it is easy to end up taking an almost moral stance, I couldn’t give up my own child so what the hell were you playing at, but circumstances are complex, humans even more so and I’m not sure it does us any good long term.
Although I may have struggled to understand relinquishment, it didn’t mean parenting was plain sailing. One of the biggest issues for me centered around loving my daughter. I didn’t know how to, adoption itself had made me suspicious of love; it was arbitrary and painful and better to be avoided. Living my life love-less seemed a much less dangerous option.
Children don’t do things by half, though, and love is no exception. I may have felt terrified, fighting the inevitable, scared of getting things wrong: of loss and grief and sorrow but my daughter, in her innocence, loved me in a straight-forward, determined way; attached, calm, and confident and it became hard to feel scared of something so wholesome and pure. As parents, our main concern is taking care of our children, but we often overlook just how often they take care of us, in a myriad of nuanced and subtle ways and how much we change from simply being in their presence.
It didn’t stop my anxiety especially the nightmares or fears that my daughter would die. I have spent most of her life thinking I will lose her: she will have a car accident, or we will find out she has a terminal illness, she’ll be shot one night in the park or be stabbed when someone breaks into her house to steal her TV or be stung by a Jellyfish or shredded by a shark or any manner of obscure things, most of which are unlikely. The other thing that is sometimes hard is when there is a deadening silence between us: when we have had an argument and my daughter is cross and saving up all her words for the right moment to spew them out and tell me she hates me. I have always found the ‘big rejections’ painful but you can see them coming to a degree, the smaller one’s: the slight pulling away, the cold silence, the angry words, these often hurt far more.
Teenage years test anyone and they tested me. I often thought we wouldn’t come out the other side, end up permanently estranged, sending a Hallmark card to each other on birthdays and at Christmas, and having an obligatory phone call once a year, where I knew my daughter would be sitting somewhere, bored, mouthing things to her friends or a boyfriend about how utterly pointless phone calls home were, whilst I cried over the lost connection. We made it through, though, primarily because love is about not giving up, I’ve learned, and partly because we are so alike anyway that whatever occurs, however tense things become, we always bounce back to one another and are pragmatic enough to realise it isn’t a big deal. Most things aren’t I’ve learned.
For a long time, my daughter was my only biological connection, which felt beautiful and bittersweet but over time, it has mattered to me less, because we may share chromosomes, but relationships take so much more than DNA. I am also thankful because all those years before, I didn’t know what the future held. It felt uncertain and confusing but now I know what it did contain, and I guess that thing is love and the simple truth that it’s not always better being alone, it can be precious instead being together.