Thursday, 27 July 2017

On Being Adopted

Baby Holding Human Finger

 Until very recently, thanks to the media enjoying stories of adopted people and birth mothers being reunited, we didn't acknowledge that a person could be affected by early separation from their birth mother, and lifetime of having to pretend that everything is fine.
 In sharing this, those who know me will now understand a bit more about why I am the way I am. People who don't know me but are themselves adopted, or close to someone who is, might gain a greater depth of understanding and acceptance...this is my hope.

I was adopted at 9 days old.  I know my birth mother's name, but not her birthday, which makes tracing her very difficult. My birth mother was known to members of my adoptive family but I'm not clear how that link was established or maintained, and anyone who could help me is long since passed.  I had a happy childhood, although my teenage years were difficult.  My parents were lovely people, both since passed, and I am so grateful to them for rescuing me, loving me and giving me a good home, and especially for being honest with me about my beginnings, right from the beginning.

Like many adopted people, I always knew I was different, I always knew someone was missing, and I certainly didn't buy any of that 'you're special, you were chosen' bullshit as a child.  As an adult if the subject arises, which it does sometimes because I am still searching, I often encounter  'You have to remember, it was difficult in the sixties for women in your mother's situation'  This is usually said off the cuff, by people who don't know what else to say, but for some reason feel the need to play devils advocate to pain that I haven't even hinted at or shared with them. I mean, Jesus, I don't blame her for heaven's sake...I totally get why she had to do it. I really, really do

. I know it was difficult for her. We were as one back then...curled inside her body and bathed in her fear, I lived it.  I don't remember it consciously, but the reality of hers and my situation is burned into my every cell.

I thank my birth mum for carrying and birthing me and making sure that I was looked my book, that's love. I don't doubt that I was loved, and I don't mean in any way by writing this, to hurt birth mothers anywhere, but to honour those dear souls, many abandoned by a family and society who should have cared more for them and who will deal for the rest of their lives with the pain of the loss of their child.

But none of the above means that I don't have feelings about this too, about the loss of the person who was my whole world.  None of the above means that alongside my deep gratitude for being saved, and 'chosen', that  I don't feel something. It's difficult to name, or describe, and it comes out now and then when triggered by fear.  Something akin to a mixture of loneliness, shame, abandonment, fear and hopelessness. In my childhood I saw it as something that accompanied me everywhere I went.  A sweet little girl in a clean pretty dress, standing on the edge of a fathomless black hole.

The loss of my parents and the birth of my children happened all at the same time. The sight of these little people, who were half my last, flesh of my flesh. So many years on, the adults that they now are, and I still look at them and wonder about our line that stops with me. I busied myself with enjoying these little people, and when they were old enough, I decided that I wanted to support women in childbirth, as a doula. I thought the impetus came from the experiences of giving birth, but maybe it was from being born.

In the autumn of 2011, six months after completing the initial doula training course, and with insurance and website and doula bag at the ready, I had to put my birth doula work on hold. Everything was in place for me to start working with women, and the enquiries were coming in, but something wasn't right.  Something very deep, from a wordless place inside my heart was seeking expression and needed to be heard.  I was beginning work in the job that suited me down to the ground, and yet I couldn't have been more unsettled, anxious and depressed. Finally, I had to become ill with shingles to become still enough to hear the cry being torn from my deepest soul. I had to hear what it was trying to say, to acknowledge that at the beginning of my life here on earth this time I cried for my mother and she didn't come. That it was like staring inevitable death in the face to be parted from her. That it took me a long time to trust that I would be alright.

Part of doula training, ongoing professional input from doula mentors, and colleague support of each other, involves debriefing experiences and exploring our own reactions and feelings around birth. Accompanying women during labour and birth is a job for someone who can connect and support without bringing their own emotional baggage into the labour room. The work of people like Binnie Dansby shows us that the fear that surrounded many of us at our own births, (due to lack of understanding of the needs of mothers and babies, and other difficult circumstances), can still be affecting us as adults. 

We begin our lives with a certain pattern, literally with our first breath, inspiring every feeling in that room, and carrying them forward with us in our lives, as our truth about life, and how welcome we are in the world, how safe it is to be here.

Doulas have to be clear about our feelings when it comes to situations that mirror unpleasant things that we have encountered personally. We have to be sure that we can be a strong support without letting these feelings influence us and the situation. A client's labour is a fresh story, and it belongs to her and her baby. Each incoming soul has his or her own destiny to fulfil, and what's right for one person may not be right for another. As doulas we are not there to try and achieve the birth outcome for another woman that we may have desired for ourselves and didn’t get. This would be an ultimately fruitless and actually selfish attempt to make yourself feel whole, not a valuable emotional support for a birthing mother. Some situations may even cause doulas to flash back to their own labours or births if these have been left unresolved. Doulas hold the birthing space, ensuring that adrenaline levels in everyone are at a minimum…she can’t do this if her own are escalating due to unresolved or buried memories

Unwell and at home alone that September, I dug around, following the scent of fear and unease pervading my psyche,praying for a revelation, for direction, and for some peace.
I questioned the previously unacknowledged fear which had me turning down enquiries and referring potential clients away to my colleagues. I realised that I was afraid that I would contaminate the birthing room and the baby's first inspiration with the seemingly bottomless pit of fear and abandonment which I was associating with birth.

I debriefed a little during my training but it was a part of my beliefs about myself and my place in the world that I should take up as little space or time as possible. I made my descriptions to my trainer and the group as short and simple as I could. I'd always felt able to express only gratitude for having healthy babies, just like the obligation I had felt in childhood to be constantly grateful to my adoptive parents for rescuing the painful situation.

I knew in my very bones that I was the cause of my birth
mum's pain, and behind this lay the guilt I felt for daring to be born.

Nobody ever mentioned the unresolved deep sorrow and terror I might have felt at our parting, so I didn't recognise it even though it wraps around me like a second skin. No one mentioned the ghosts who followed me around. The sense of a woman so close to me, but invisible, without even a face or a voice. She was as close to me as my breath, but as absent as one who had died before my birth. And I never even knew her. But I grew inside her.  The ghosts of the children my dear parents might have had if they could have had their own.  The need to find my own people, which could never be expressed as it would underline my parents' inability to birth their own little people. Perhaps I was the ghost, the one who wasn't supposed to be here, and everyone else was real. These were the nameless feelings I didn't even know I was feeling, whilst I was so busy being happy and grateful, like the fish who doesn't know what water is.So in my initial debrief during training, I told a happy tale of a mixture of home and hospital births, all with live healthy outcomes. I certainly glossed over the physical terror of my first son’s high forceps delivery and the aftermath for both him and myself, and how it was all mixed in with the utter shock at my father’s death, which had occurred suddenly a matter of weeks before. I mentioned my second son’s prematurity, but not the appalling way the ward sister treated me as he was rushed by ambulance to another hospital, nor the agony and fear of separation from him or the wordless storm of feelings which that re-awoke and stirred up, nor the guilt that a fall had been the cause.

There is more, but this is not the place.

In telling my birth stories, just like telling my adoption story, I was still looking after other people. Looking for ways to make the story entertaining, short, and above all, not uncomfortable for the listener. It was the same story about how everything was fine, that I'd been telling myself for years, I just didn't connect emotionally with it. The true story was fighting its way to the surface, needing to be told.

A book came into my hands. 'The secret life of the unborn child' by Thomas Verny.

I read it on a sultry September afternoon when I felt well enough to sit outside in my garden chair. The air was warm and still, and I read and dozed in the heat. Thomas Verny's book suggested that of course babies in the womb were sentient, and that as adults we would have a memory of this time somewhere in our bodies. Why wouldn't we? The same with might block it out, but somewhere in your body, your self, your cells, you carry the imprint of the feelings and circumstances of that time.

The book rested on my belly as I closed my eyes in the warmth under the trees. I didn't want to think too hard, but I knew that if I wished I could drift backwards...wombwards.  Could I remember being curled inside my mother's womb? What were my impressions? My feelings?

I knew that this was a delicate, self-induced state of light hypnosis, and I made the very most of it, like a pearl-diver getting what treasure he can before the breath runs out.  I went with it, I don't know how long I lay there. When I gently resurfaced, I did what I do with dreams so as not to lose them, and I replayed it all over in my mind without moving a muscle, to lay down a memory trace of it. Here are the pearls I gathered:

I'm in a slightly toxic environment, troubled and sick with the hormones of fear, and a feeling of worry and dread. Sounds are loud and unpleasant.

There is the knowledge that this is temporary. I am to be parted from my mum, for the good of us both. The uselessness of connecting with her because soon our life-lines will separate.

Birth is frightening and I feel alone and unacknowledged. I feel her fear and sorrow and pain. I crave her warmth and don't know how I will live without her.

She's gone.

This was a most remarkable experience and it bought me a sense of understanding, and peace. I also realised why I felt 'at home' with the sick anxiety of nicotine coursing through my veins even though it made me feel ghastly. I was finally able to let smoking go shortly after this.

It took 18 months or more to do the work of learning to connect with these feelings, express them and be held and to accept the love and compassion my loved ones feel for me. I came to realise that of course I'm meant to be here...because here I am!!  Deal with it!!  I saw that I had drawn caring souls around me, among them dear Lily, my birth mum who carried me and gave birth to me and gave me up for a better life to my mum Celia and dad Al who gave me the love I needed, even though it has taken me this long to learn to trust it. My daughter Lily Celia is named for them both.

My body had told me that it wasn't time to doula for other women, it was time to be my own doula, at my own rebirthing.
When I felt ready to doula again, I was sent the very scenarios that would have triggered me before, but I was able to connect deeply with the birthing mother and incoming soul, supporting their journey, in the birth room free of my story from the past. Its absolutely vital for doulas to be comfortable with and understanding of their own arrival on earth and the stories of their children's births, before becoming involved in someone else's.
I want to thank the ladies of the Sussex doulas, who heard my birth story, and held me during the telling of it, enabling me to stop running from it and start living.
‘There is a dear Lily out there
With a Jil-shaped hole in her jigsaw
Like the hole that mine has, shaped like her.
I have her piece
And she has mine.
I keep it safe, and loved, until I can return it to her, with all my love, and my thanks, for my life.’~Jil W.M
Pray for us now, and at the hour of our birth’ ~T.S Eliot

Let me know your thoughts in the comments box below, I'd love to hear them xx


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