Fifteen months ago I held a not baby shower at our local lido. The not is important. I was neither having a baby nor wanting a baby shower. But it seemed fitting to mark the start of my new life, and bid farewell to the old one. It was a lovely gathering in which close family and friends shared their tips for the future. Two weeks later I headed west to meet my seven year old daughter for the first time. All I wanted from that initial encounter was to feel it would be ok. That neither of us would repel the other. It was better than that. She overcame her initial shyness quickly, raced me to the swings and smiled a lot. I returned to my digs, opened a bottle and contacted my family in upbeat mood.
Swimming was to play a major part in the months that followed. On the third day of knowing my little girl, let’s call her Marin, we went to an outdoor pool where it poured down, but there was no talk of an early exit. Instead we sheltered under foam floats and laughed about it, then warmed ourselves up with hot chocolate. This was a lifesaver after a downer of a day two, when we’d hung around a pub over lunch with the foster family, a disconnected group of adults and children each in her own world and struggling to converse. I subsequently came to feel very warm towards those people, whose wise words I still hear in my head, and I am eternally grateful also to the teacher who recommended venues for the intro period and calmed my fears before we met.
Back in London ten days later, we began our lives together, Marin and me. It was the start of the summer holidays, which was great for bonding before the return to school, but pretty intense for two newly matched people with independent ideas. The lido became our shared haunt, a refuge from the heat and a place to play. I’d taken my nephews swimming since they were babies and dreamt of bonding in the water with my own child. Sometimes we played a game in which I’d wrap Marin in a towel and unwrap her like a parcel in which I could express my delight while she acted out the role of a frightened animal despatched to its new owner, squirming and squeaking fearfully until she could learn to trust and relinquish control, and then she let herself be soothed and cuddled. Sometimes we would start the game before she’d say she didn’t want to play any more and I’d struggle to hide my feelings of rejection. In the real world the attention and touch of complete strangers were less threatening than the affection of the new mum who was bursting to bestow it. The literature suggests this can be about pre-empting rejection, maintaining control and avoiding closeness, because adults you get close to become frightening, or leave you, or both. But it’s hard not to take it personally. In adoption that’s a lesson you have to learn.
Alternating between pool and shower, Marin sought interaction with any remotely responsive adult or child. I tried to keep her close and struggled to achieve it without seeming like a control freak myself. Without those early years in which you are the one that smiles at her, feeds her, changes her nappy and rejoices in her first steps your authority in those first months comes only from the rights bestowed upon you by social services with the agreement of the court – an institutional arrangement through which, overnight, you have become mother to a child who has already been in the world for seven years, has other ideas about how things are and will be, known other mothers and lost them. And who doesn’t call you mum.
One day, in one of the many episodes in which I take no pride, but from which I’ve learned and about which I have cut myself a little retrospective slack, I found myself playing ball at the lido with a little boy we’d seen several times who seemed to enjoy my company, while willing Marin to experience a pang of jealousy that would push her in my direction. I’ve studied attachment theory. I’ve done the classes, reading and the thinking (though there’s always room for more). But nothing can ever prepare you fully for how it feels in the moment. It can be a struggle to stay in adult mode at times. Another day Marin left my side to befriend a family on the train while I was guarding the luggage. I went over. She pushed me away and started climbing on to the father’s knee. Thankfully he did not let her. Others were less resistant. They didn’t like her to feel unwanted and they liked to be wanted themselves. I do understand that, but I wish they could have understood what she and I were experiencing. Other people and adoption is a big topic, as blogs here have eloquently shown. Another day I’ll write about it. But for all her smiles and the apparent exuberance that gained positive comments from others, Marin often seemed vacant and disengaged.
During that time, though, we also began creating our bank of shared memories. We cooked together from children’s recipe books, drew pictures and visited the library – what a Godsend they are. She began to gain confidence on her bike and tried out her scooter in the skateboard park. We developed our little routines, alternating between sugary breakfasts and healthy ones, between her choice of radio and mine. One day when I badly needed soothing background noise I tuned into Radio 3, thinking she’d object strongly. Instead she said: “I like this classic stuff.” Somehow at that moment this was marvellous. I couldn’t stand any more Heart FM. Along with half the living room, dedicated to play, she put her stamp firmly on each room, rearranging the cutlery drawer, delineating her section of bathroom shelf and sticking pictures on my bedroom door. For my part, I loved arranging her artwork on the kitchen walls and began to smile when I found her stickers in the strangest places.
Gradually our bond has developed. Fragile at first, but growing ever stronger. She began to call me mum when she went back to school and has done since, and often now I’m Mama and Bubs! During the last year and a quarter I have done some grieving for the life I had, for all its imperfections, and for the life I’ve never had. But I have also experienced great joy and delight and a renewal of excitement in events and sights I had stopped getting excited about. We have our own expressions and songs, we share a love of practising accents and I’ve relished her enjoyment of some firsts, most notably holidays, at home and abroad. I am, of course, very annoying to her several times a day and she tells me so. But she’s engaging with me when she does. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s all happened, but those rights bestowed on me are also a massive privilege. It can still be incredibly hard, but we have something underneath us that let’s us bounce back. My daughter is an incredible human being.
One summer on and the sun is shining. “I know what we can do”, I say, and her eyes light up. “Go to the lido”, she says. I am thrilled. Afterwards she makes me the most treasured card I have received from her, which seems to have an authenticity about it that is different from before. It has blue and yellow on it and says: “A day came round at the lido. To mum. I love you.”