petite anglaise

January 14, 2007

The Adoption

Filed under: adoption — petiteanglaise @ 9:53 pm

Books about adoption, whether fiction or memoir, hold a special fascination for me, and always will. Some of my own experiences as an adoptee are documented in the “adoption” category of this blog.

Which is why Dave Hill’s book “The Adoption” caught my attention. Dave, a fellow Brit and blogger, has become a virtual friend and a fascinating “inside source” on the weird and wonderful world of publishing.

The basic premise of “The Adoption” is as follows: a couple who realise they are too old to have any more children (and who already, in fact, have three of their own: two teens, and a younger son at primary school) decide to apply to adopt another child in order to complete their family. Given the dearth of newborns available for adoption, they are offered the opportunity to care for Jody, a three-year-old who has lived with a string of different foster parents since being removed from the care of her young, alcoholic mother by social services.

Told from the point of view of all the members of the family in turn, including Jody herself (who is, of course, Tadpole’s age), I found “The Adoption” incredibly honest and illuminating. The characters rang astonishingly true, and for the first time, I think, I fully appreciated what a minefield bringing up several children represents, and how complex the interaction of family members can be. Welcoming a newcomer into the fold creates tensions, both exacerbating existing problems and creating new ones. I found myself on tenterhooks, wondering whether ultimately Jane had bitten off more than she could chew.

I also found myself dreading Tadpole’s teenage years, as Dave Hill’s descriptions of the teenage daughter, Lorna, brought back vivid memories of some of the despicable things I once said to my own mother under the influence of raging hormones.

The following is a short extract, a scene which takes place shortly after Jody’s arrival at her new home.

Her name was Jody: Jody Jones.

Jane knew that three-year-olds are leaving babyhood behind. They may still get scared by strange noises or imaginary beasts, and may still cling to comfort blankets. But mostly they are becoming sociable. They begin to enjoy the company of other children; they like to laugh and act daft; they start to grasp the shocking truth that grown-ups cannot read their minds and sometimes need to have things explained. Times passage, too, begins to have meaning. They start to talk about the future and the past.

The past: Jody’s past; the mental space from which it was Jane’s mission to rescue her. Jody got slowly to her feet.

‘Come on, Jody. Let me give you a hug.’ Jane held out her arms. Jody stepped into them, keeping hold of the doll and leaving Grandpa’s Handkerchief behind. Jane lifted her up, shocked by her lightness yet almost breathless with the weight of responsibility. ‘Let’s find the others, shall we?’ she said.”

Once I’d finished “The Adoption“, I sent it as a gift to another blogger I have never met, but often corresponded with, who is in the process of applying to adopt a young child himself.

Such a vast place, the internet, and yet such a small world at the same time.

December 7, 2004

family album

Filed under: adoption, navel gazing — petiteanglaise @ 10:29 am

The possibility of a meeting was not mentioned at first, as both of us were treading carefully, anxious not to rush things and frighten the other away. So we began by exchanging photographs, and more letters.

Obviously I look nothing like my adoptive family. My sisters both have wavy auburn hair and freckles and are often mistaken for one another. I have dark blonde hair and a pale complexion, and I’m petite in comparison. I have always wondered what it would be like to see echoes of myself in someone else’s face. I reasoned that if there were visible proof of our shared genetic heritage, it would help me to establish an immediate bond with my biological parents. I suspect they were just as disappointed as I was when the likeness was not immediately apparent.

I spent a long time poring over the photographs searching for genetic clues. Undeniably, when I was very young, I looked a lot like one of my twin brothers. However it is almost impossible to detect any similarity between the thirty something me and the teenager he has become today, and I struggle to see anything of my father or my other brother in me.

My mother’s face is deeply lined, despite the fact she is only in her mid-forties. It reflects the fact that life has not been kind to her. I can trace faint lines in the same places on my own face, but I hope they will never have cause to become as pronounced. Our features are not similar, but people have told me there are fleeting moments when we do have the same facial expressions. On one recent photograph, where we are both squinting towards the camera with the sun in our eyes, one such instant has been captured and the resemblance is quite striking.

I now see my biological parents two or three times a year. Letters are exchanged, but less frequently than in the beginning. For me at least, once the curiosity about the circumstances surrounding my birth had been satisfied, knowing the details of their day-to-day life was not so important to me, so there is inevitably less to say. The person I wanted to get to know was the fifteen year old girl who gave birth to me, and so it is when my mother talks about the past that she holds my attention. It would have been enough for me to hear her story, be reassured that she was well and happy and not harbouring too many regrets about having me adopted. I could have lived without continued contact. I hope this doesn’t sound callous.

For my mother on the other hand, getting to know me represented the beginning of a healing process. Once she had told her story she could start to find a way to exorcise the guilt which had been poisoning her life ever since she gave me up for adoption. There is no way I could break off contact now without inflicting more pain. I decided to go looking for her, and there are consequences to my actions.

I do feel a great deal of empathy for her, especially now that I too have experienced pregnancy and motherhood. In her company I am far more at ease than I would expect, given how little we know each other. But there is no escaping the fact that our lives have been very different and we struggle to find common ground. I have been to university and now live in a foreign country; she never left the village where she was born. I suspect I intimidate her a little.

My adoptive family will always remain my ‘real’ family, as far as I’m concerned. They raised me, loved me unconditionally and have seen me at my best and worst for the past thirty years. Their upbringing made me who I am today. When I have a problem, my first instinct will always be to reach for the telephone and call mum. The names ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ belong only to them. My sisters may not look like me, but we grew up together, we have a shared history. Regardless of blood ties, I don’t think the twins will ever feel like brothers, right now they are more like distant cousins.

I know that my biological family would like to see me more often, but there is a limit to how much I feel able to give. It is delicate finding the right balance, reconciling my needs with theirs. I do understand that they, and particularly my mother, feel the need to play a part in my life going forward, and in the life of her first grandchild.

I don’t regret seeking out my biological mother. Positive things have come out of it. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing, and I don’t think it ever will be.

December 6, 2004

letter

Filed under: adoption, navel gazing — petiteanglaise @ 9:00 am

Home from work, I reached into the post box and pulled out a handful of junk mail. And also a cream coloured envelope with an unfamiliar postmark. I had seen the handwriting on the envelope once before: it matched the signature on my adoption paperwork. It felt as though all the blood was draining out of my face as I stumbled blindly along the hallway to the apartment, clutching the letter. I didn’t allow myself to open the envelope until safely inside.

“Thank you so much for your letter which I hoped you would write one day…”

Tears streamed down my face as I read and re-read. One passage made me sob out loud. After some time had passed I became aware of my surroundings again and realised I was sitting on the stairs, my bag still around my shoulder, in semi-darkness. The front door stood ajar, my keys dangling from the lock.

And so, finally, I was able to read my biological mother’s version of the events surrounding my birth. She had been hoping against hope for almost thirty years that I would make contact with her one day. Having me adopted was not exactly her choice, as her parents (with whom she had always had a difficult relationship) had pressured her into taking that course of action. I was shocked to read that my sixteen-year- old mother had spent ten days in the maternity hospital after the birth, feeding me, bathing me and holding me in her arms, before giving me up. She remembered vividly driving away from the hospital in her parents’ car, her arms empty.

A couple of years later my mother got back together with an old flame and they married when I was four years old. More than a decade passed before she felt able to try for any more children. Eventually they had twin boys. The thing that she found hardest to explain to me, the main reason for her feelings of guilt and regret, was that the man she had married was my biological father.

When I finally made the decision to write, first and foremost I wanted to contact my mother to let her know that things had turned out well for me, that I was happy, that I was contemplating starting a family of my own. In return I hoped to find out that her life had not been ruined by her teenage pregnancy, that she had moved on and been happy too. I didn’t know for sure whether the address I had used was correct, whether my grandparents would pass on the letter to my mother, or indeed whether she would ever reply if she did receive it.

The one thing I had never contemplated, and I don’t know why, was the fact that my biological mother and father might actually be together.

I was a mess for a while. I couldn’t read the letter without crying and I read it every single day, more than once. I suppose I was unprepared for the emotions I had stirred up: I had no inkling I possessed such strong feelings, but they must have been lurking beneath the surface all along.

It was overwhelming. Far more than I had bargained for. I had wanted to find out about my biological mother. Instead I had found a whole family. And I wasn’t sure I knew what to feel about that.

December 2, 2004

prologue

Filed under: adoption, navel gazing — petiteanglaise @ 11:51 pm

The year was 1972. In those days it was the done thing for single teenage mums to have their children adopted. My biological mother was fifteen when she realised she was pregnant, and no longer seeing her boyfriend.

I was adopted at birth by a couple who had been unable to conceive and had spent several years on adoption agency waiting lists.

The photographs taken of mum and dad holding me in their arms on the day they finally brought me home speak volumes. My new mum looked radiant.

I cannot remember a time when I was not aware that I was adopted. I was told when I was too young to understand so it feels like I’ve always known. Two years later when my parents began proceedings to adopt a baby brother, my mother discovered she had conceived naturally. I have two sisters. The three of us are very different, although they look similar, and I do not. But I don’t remember ever minding this fact. Or feeling less loved.

As a child I liked to shock adults by mentioning out of the blue that I was adopted and took a perverse pleasure in their visible discomfort as they tried to gauge how they should react. Being adopted made me feel a bit special. It was also full of dramatic potential. I had (I suspect very common) fantasies about my biological parents being fabulously wealthy and my one day inheriting a fortune. A favourite daydream was that I would see someone with my face walking towards me in the street and just know that we were related. A half brother or sister, or my mother herself. Or I imagined being attracted to a younger guy, only to find out that he was actually my half brother.

At the magic age of fifteen I thought a lot about the hell my biological mother must have gone through – not an easy thing to conceive of, as I hadn’t even had my first kiss at that stage – and I was deeply superstitious about history repeating itself.

Mum, a family history enthusiast, showed me all the adoption papers and even got hold of a copy of my biological mother’s birth certificate. The papers showed her maiden name, and gave scant details about her circumstances: she had met my father in the park, failed her ‘O’ Levels during the pregnancy. We knew her parents’ address, so I always knew that answers to any questions I might have were less than an hour’s drive away from where I lived with my adoptive family.

Whenever I talked about being adopted, my friends said that if they were adopted they would search for their parents. They would have to know. My reticence was a mystery to them. But it didn’t strike me as necessary to find my mother. I already had a family and, although we had our ups and down, like everyone else, I didn’t ever feel as if any important part of me was missing.

I had also convinced myself that my mother would have tried to put the whole traumatic experience behind her, and now quite possibly had a family who knew nothing of my existence. She might not want any contact with me. After watching the film ‘Secrets and Lies’, I admitted to myself that another of my fears was that my mother would be like the Brenda character, and if we ever did meet, we could well have very little in common.

So for a long time I did nothing. Until one summer’s day in 2001, when I decided to write my biological mother a letter.

click here for further posts about adoption.

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