My Dad and Grace – a story of bereavement and adoption

My Dad’s death last month, following an intense, but relatively short battle with cancer, has been the most visceral, powerful experience of my life, bar none – and I include childbirth in that. Watching someone I loved so much take their last breath when, for a few precious minutes, it was just me, and him, alone, was a privilege both terrible and beautiful.

So what’s this got to do with adoption? Well, in the weeks since, feeling adrift in a world that doesn’t seem to notice my Dad’s not in it anymore, I’ve realised that our four-year-old daughter, Grace, ‘gets it’ – instinctively and profoundly. And I’ve also realised that, in showing my own vulnerability, she and I have found a new way to bond.

She’s not experienced bereavement before (as far as we know) but, with an unknown birth father, and only one letterbox contact from her birth mother during the last three years, she’s experienced a loss that’s surely pretty darn close. The two central figures of her life – those whose DNA she shares – must seem as resolutely gone from her life as my Dad has gone from mine.

We were upfront with both our girls (we have an older, birth daughter) from the outset about Dad’s illness and tried to answer any questions they had about death. They saw him in his last week of life, knowing that they were saying goodbye. I will never forget Dad’s heroic effort to lever himself upright in his hospice bed, giving them a cheery wave and smile, telling them he loved them. The grins on their faces told me they were reassured; that here was the grandad they still knew and loved.

Later, we gave them the option to come to his funeral – both chose not to, but have visited his grave, in private, since. And now life is back to (a new) normal. Our older daughter has breezed on, wrapped in her own 10-year-old concerns and excitements. But Grace has continued to watch, and take notice.

Like a few days ago, when a school mum acquaintance asked me how I was? “Oh, I’m fine, thanks,” I said, automatically. Grace looked from one to another of us and stated, firmly and loudly: “No – you’re NOT fine!”

Fair cop. Suddenly, she’s undercut the grown-up social niceties and I’m admitting she’s right, I’m not fine, but I’m coping okay.  What I don’t say is that, partly, that’s because of Grace and the ‘permission’ she’s given me to grieve.

Soon after Dad’s funeral, back in our own home, she stuck her head in the fridge, came out again and declared; “You can always remember Grandad whenever you look in the fridge, Mum.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look”, she says, brandishing a small bottle of eye-drops pulled from some hidden recess, “he left these here when he last came to visit.”

And then the tears come, hot and unbidden, and I’m a sobbing heap in her little arms. She pats me on the back til I hiccup to a stop. “I’m sorry,” I say, ‘but I miss him so much and sometimes that makes me feel so sad I have to let it out.”

And then, my lightbulb moment: “And maybe you feel like that sometimes, too? When you think about your tummy mummy?”

She nods, slowly. “I feel sad when I think about her.”

“Because you miss her?”

“Because now I can’t remember ever being with her.”

Grace has always carefully guarded against showing emotional vulnerability. On coming to live with us, leaving her much-loved and loving foster family home, she didn’t shed a tear. On her first day at school, with other kids in the line-up succumbing, domino-style, to hysterical wailing, she stared, dry-eyed and straight ahead, and angrily shook off my attempted embrace.

Now, it seems, she’s fascinated by my tears. She asks me why we cry? I say there are many reasons – sometimes when we’re really happy, or occasionally when the wind blows in our eye. Sometimes, when we’re sad, as a way of letting those sad feelings out. “What happens if we don’t let them out? “ she says. “Well, maybe they just build up somewhere inside us and that can make us feel worse. Or they come out in a different way – like feeling really angry, or frightened, perhaps.”

A few days after the fridge moment, we’re walking along the street when she asks me to close my eyes. When I open them, she’s holding out a beautiful, red, autumn leaf. “Grandad sent you this,” she says, scanning my face closely .

I say that’s lovely – and did he say anything when he sent it?

“Yes, he said: ‘Tell your mum that I’m an angel now – and I love her.’”

A pause, then: “Are you crying?”

And I am, but not uncontrollably. So I smile and say yes but, actually, they’re happy/sad tears because that’s just such a lovely present and message to get.

A few days later, the strangest thing. She comes home from school with a newly chosen reading book from their stock. It has a huge cartoon drawing of a young great white shark on the front (she likes sharks) and I read it to her that night, at bedtime. The youngster can’t find his best friend fish anywhere in the ocean – he’s just… gone. He ropes in his mum to help him look, with no success. Mum eventually, and gently, suggests, that the friend will not be found and that this will be hard, and sad, for the young shark to accept. But, she says, when we lose a loved one, they’re not really lost to us – because we keep them with us, safe, in our hearts.

By now, I can hardly see the words through my tears. I turn to Grace at the end and say” “Shall we do that, too? Keep my Dad and your tummy mummy safe in our hearts?”

She nods and I see that, silently, but openly, she’s crying, too. And then we hold each other, and pat each other on the back, until the tears stop.

Becoming Charlie’s mum

I will never forget holding our son in my arms for the first time. He was 10 months. A chubby-cheeked, healthy boy, with a curious look. My brown-eyed boy. With silky soft olive skin. A little tired, and unsure about the situation. But he was calm looked straight at us, and as I held him he almost instantly lent onto my chest. And just lay there. Only self-control prevented my heart from bursting.

A wise friend had warned me, that I might feel all sorts of things when I would met our son, and so he advised me to acknowledge each and every one of those feelings – including the less positive, or even negative ones. I’m glad he did. I was not a little scared. What was I supposed to feel for this little person, my son, who I did not yet know? I knew that I was responsible for him, I was to take care of him. The best possible care I was capable of.

Meeting and holding our son then is a strong emotional memory, a physical and a visual one.
We had entered his foster mother’s flat about 1 min earlier. The woman who had raised and loved him as her own since he was only 3 ½ days old, when he arrived in a cab straight from hospital. A woman for whom my admiration and respect knows no boundaries. He has never lived with his birthmother, a gentle and kind woman, who I have met with my husband. And whose heartache at the journey to adoption I can only guess at.

In other words, by the time Charlie met us, he already had two mothers. It took me a while to fill my own shoes as his forever mother, as social workers like to call it. I prefer mum. The everydayness of the word, with its whiff of grass stains and banana smears, endless cuddles to comfort and sooth, the love.

The very day he moved in with us in late August of last year, we took him to our family doctor to register him. They gave me a form and I sat down with it, while my husband took him to be weighed. The form asked me what my relation to the child was. I was confused. Adoption is a bureaucratic process to say the least. I went to the registration desk and asked. The two receptionists looked at each other, then at me and said ‘well, … mum. …. Or mother..?’. That’s the moment a whole other dimension about our family opened up to me. Of course! Now I’m Charlie’s mum to the outside world too! This is not just a private journey, but a public one too. That didn’t change the strong feeling of being a fraud, an imposter the first time I turned up at the playground on my own with our son. The safety net of the introduction week, with fostermum, husband, social workers galore, had vanished. Now it was me and him. And I was meant to be the grown up. Despite feeling anything but ready for the reality of the public space! Given his age people might have expected me to be an experienced mum, yet I had only just met him.
We had months of catch-up ahead of us.

Like so many other adopters, my personal journey to motherhood has been long, a merry-go-round of disappointment, loss, and hope. I’d given up on the traitorous thought, when suddenly there was hope again. And here we are. A family of three. That life-changing event of going from professional couple to family.

Nothing. Will. Ever. Be. The. Same. Again.
(This includes my wardrobe, sleep, eating habits, and my relationship.)

Biological mothers describe the adrenalin rush of the early weeks and months. I was high as a kite for months! A mother I know, who have both biological children and an adopted child, thought the rush might have been stronger with her adopted child, as you are thrown in at the deep end, from one day to the next.

I had been thinking, feeling, talking and reading about motherhood and adoption for years.
The reading gathered pace in the last few months before our son arrived, but one book stands out. It was recommended by our social worker: writer and psychotherapist Naomi Stadlen’s book ‘What Mothers Do. Especially when it looks like nothing.’ She writes about motherhood in all its wonderful minutiae. The books are based on discussion with mothers, originating from a weekly group that she holds in London. She has been running them for 22 years. This is not great literature, nor the newest scientific research. This is just what it says on the tin: mothers talking. Quotes about fears, about anxieties, about verbalising some of those thousands of thoughts and feelings that spring from becoming a mother. I especially loved a passage about picking a baby up. It’s true – you don’t just do it – baby certainly wouldn’t like it, if you did, just pluck it, like an apple from a tree, whenever you felt like it. No, there is subtle communication with baby before you do so. You both get ready. This can be split second of course, but an exchange takes place. The book is filled with observations like this.

With all this new time on my hands, and the veritable wealth, overwhelming wealth of things-to-do with my little one – I didn’t quite know where to start. With a sleeping baby in the buggy, I walked down the high street near where I live, stopped at a shop window to read some of the many flyers in their window. And there! In amongst all the other stuff, was a listing of Mothers Talking with Naomi Stadlen – held weekly in the shop Born itself!! I couldn’t believe my luck, and went along the next Monday. It was summer, and we weren’t many that first time. We sat in a circle and everyone took their turn telling tales from the past week. I was shy, and listened with great interest. And then it was my turn to tell our incredible story. As incredible as the others. The responses were heartfelt, and warm. And thus the group soon became a lifeline. As I sifted through the baby/toddler groups available, I cherished these weekly meetings. They were a backbone, helping me with my own sanity. I think the regularity was important too. A place to go, while I was finding my own feet in the role as a mother.

I am a great believer in the fact that parental mental health is key to successful, enjoyable and playful parenting we all dream of. You don’t have to be ill or near breaking point to realise this. Once a week, this group offered a wholesome injection for the mind and soul, as the focus of our activities inverted: this was for mothers, and the babies were very welcome, rather than the other way round. They milled around us as we talked over our cups of tea, carefully placed out of reach from the nippers. The babies became friends as we grown ups did. They still form a central part of our social life. The babies are now toddlers, staggering about, sharing and fighting over toys, the personalities are shining ever brighter and more life affirming. I love following them and their mothers’ love and lives.

As an adoptive parent, I did not have a ready-formed NCT group to go to, as birthmothers do.
But Mothers Talking provided a group, of women with children of roughly similar age, that all shared one key emotive – a curiosity, and drive towards asking all those big and small questions about what it means to become a mother. We all welcomed a safe space to think and feel more deeply about being a mother. A space where we could talk about the more troublesome aspects of this new life of ours, as well as the silly anecdotes. For me personally coming from adoption rather than birth it meant more than I can say to hear the others mums’ tales, as that reassured me of the commonality, of all that we share, as mothers, be it adopted or biological.

In this day and age when the pressures and demands on motherhood are arguably more pronounced than ever before, lots of women themselves are helping to polish that unhelpful image of perfection that is invading our private sphere mainly through the omnipresent media. By contrast, this was a refreshingly convivial group of likeminded, but very different women. Curiously, if perhaps at times I found myself disagreeing with a mother’s point of view or approach, I always respected her and her opinions. These sessions opened my heart and mind to the zillions of ways of being a mother. And that was, and still is, truly inspiring. Naturally, where there are mothers, there were many practical tips to be had too.

In the beginning, there were times when I left the group with a heavier heart than when I came.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; I called it ‘my odd-one-out-group’, as I was the only adoptive mother. As it turned out, I happened to be the only one in the history of Mothers Talking. Just to be clear: I think this may say more about the adoptive mothers, and possibly the age of their children, than it does about the group. Then it dawned on me what it was, the feeling I couldn’t quite place: being part of a minority family. Was I made to feel different? Or did I feel different within myself, because of the adoption? Because I hadn’t given birth to our son? And never breastfed him, as ‘real’ mums do? At any rate, these were issues that I needed to address, not just for my sake – but for our son’s sake. I needed to have a stance in order to help and protect him in the future, from exactly such feelings, and possible questions from the world at large. In my case, addressing was extremely helpful – and this was a safe space to do so in. Since then I always leave the group feeling lighter. Naomi and the group help me explore this side of my own motherhood story. Hopefully better preparing me for the road ahead. The point being, that whatever your story, this is a safe place to digest and get a perspective on it.

In some ways I think NCT for adopters if you like is a gap in the post-adoptive provision.
To this end a parental support group has been set up. Just as for any other woman, however they arrived at it, becoming a mother is HUGE. As an adopter you actively choose and pursue parenthood, and prepare as much as possible – yet the child seems to land in your life, turning everything upside down – overnight. No amount of preparation could prepare you for this transformation of life-as you-knew-it. Verbalising some of this magnificent change, and listening to others parents’ thoughts on their own can be very powerful indeed, healing even.
It certainly was for me.
I became our son’s mother while attending the group.