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The Other Mother

How adopting my son inspired my PhD

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Rule number one. What happens in the room stays in the room. I cannot tell you where we were, cannot talk about the other participants, what their names were, what they said. I cannot share the stories they told that brought tears to my eyes, or the things that have happened to them since to change their lives. I can tell you that there were ten of us sat round wooden tables, facing a woman in a charcoal trouser suit. Ten hopeful people, who had lived through things we’d rather forget, who knew what we wanted, and what we wanted was a child. Or in my case, a second child. We sat and listened, spoke and shared, read and wrote and listened some more. We took it all in, absorbed every precious drop, let it fill us up. We drank tea and nibbled oat cookies and giggled nervously.

She was good, the woman in charcoal, but she wasn’t one of us. She pretended to know; she had worked with people like us. On day two, we would have a visit from an Adopter, someone who had been through it all: the social worker picking over the debris of her life – interrogating her friends and family, contacting her employer, and her exes, checking her bank statements, examining her home, her medical records, her deepest, darkest thoughts – ‘By the end of it all, they’ll know you better than you know yourself!’; being interviewed by an approval panel of fifteen people who could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — ‘Don’t worry, they nearly always say yes!’; being handed a child’s profile over a cup of coffee, reading how they collected ants and tore wallpaper from the walls to feed a sibling because there was no food in the house — ‘It’s important to get the right match’; having to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’; then being told that somebody else was chosen instead; looking at another profile and another, wondering if she can bear to see any more and then…trying to convince them that yes, this is the right match, she is the right mother for this child; meeting her daughter for that first time, watching her cling to her foster carer and slowly come forward and take the welcome present with a shy smile; and finally, finally, bringing her home. A life interrupted, beginning again.

On day three, the climax. A Birth Mother, whose child had been adopted, would be there with us in that very room. We must appreciate the courage it would take her to face us; we must make her feel welcome, never judged, talk to her with sensitivity. She had lived through things she’d rather forget. But she could never forget. She would hold a crumpled photograph of her baby in a yellow romper suit, the son she hadn’t seen for forty years, the only image she had of him, that she put under her pillow at night. She would talk with a faraway voice, watching us through eyes that hardly blinked, and we would know her pain.

The night before, I dreamed of her, this other mother. She showed me the photo, her baby’s eyes the colour of emeralds; he morphed into a gangly school kid, a gawky teenager, a geeky young man and then a middle-aged one, his eyes the colour of toad. I woke with a banging headache, splashed my face with cold water and looked at myself in the mirror, long and hard.

She didn’t show. We were left with the voice of the social worker and the Adopter ringing in our ears. Insightful as they were, they weren’t the headline act we had queued up to see.

He’s been with us for two years now. Settling down in the armchair by the window, I stick my own photographs in family albums. His expression changes day by day, week by week, as he grows into himself, into our family. I look out of the window as my eight-year-old takes him by the hand down the path to dig for worms, two pairs of muddy wellies stomping in delight.

When I wrote this memoir piece in 2014, two years after adopting my second child, I was yet to meet a birth mother. My son’s birth mother turned down the option of meeting and her whereabouts are now unknown. Like most women who go down the adoption route, I had considered other avenues of building my family, including egg donation. To help me make sense of my own journey from secondary infertility to adoption, I was consumed by a need to read diverse reflections and representations of mothering. Contemporary explorations of motherhood in life writing have primarily focused on the biological mother raising the child she gave birth to. Jackie Kay and Jeanette Winterson have published highly moving accounts of the adoptee’s experience (Kay, 2010; Winterson, 2011). Yet the voices of adoptive mothers – and indeed birth mothers whose children are adopted – are largely absent in literature. As are the memoirs of surrogate mothers who give birth to children for other mothers to raise, and egg donors whose genetic offspring are out there in the world with other families. I decided I wanted to write their stories.

I knew this would be a complex project involving nuanced ethical and artistic considerations and decided that doctoral study would provide the support and rigour required. I was accepted onto a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with the Open University (OU), with a proposal for a life-writing project which would involve interviewing women and writing up stories of adoption, surrogacy and egg donation from both sides of the equation. On a personal level, as a biological and adoptive mother, I undertook the process of researching and writing these mothers’ stories as a quest to deepen my own understanding of what it means to mother a child when your child has another mother (through adoption, surrogacy or egg donation).

After obtaining clearance from the OU Human Research Ethics Committee, I interviewed six women: Alison, a mother via egg donation and adoption; Charlotte, an egg donor whose eggs have created two babies for two different families; Ruby, who travelled to India to find a surrogate, and now has two children via two different surrogates; Wren, a surrogate who carried two babies for one couple; Lorraine, an adoptive mother of two who was adopted herself as a baby; and Margaret, a birth mother in her seventies who gave her baby up for adoption fifty years ago. (All names have been changed.) The first interviewee, Alison, showed me an embroidered quilt that her mother-in-law created to tell their family story — a pocket of a toddler’s jeans, the ribbon from a present, etc. This notion of the quilt, a tapestry, a rich woven artistic product encompassing different images, threads and stories became a metaphor for the way the project unfolded, combining different voices, registers, stories and forms. Working with the interview material, I produced a body of life writing – a literary tapestry – as a hybrid form of curated material (edited interviews and selected quotations from published work) and created material (poetry, reimagined scenes and lyric essay), accompanied by a critical meta-narrative. The experimental form builds on the work of others, particularly: Tony Parker’s oral histories (Parker, 1972), Bahktin’s ‘heteroglossia’ (Bahktin, 1982), Roland Barthes’s ‘structural portrait’ (Barthes, 1977), Carolyn Ellis’s ‘autoethnography’ (2003), David Shields’ ‘collage as an evolution beyond narrative’ (Shields, 2011) and Jo Parnell’s ‘literary docu-memoir’ (Parnell, 2019).

The experience was transformative, as a writer and a mother. The process changed the way I approached life writing: I learned that editing interviews is a creative act, allowing patterns, motifs and themes to emerge, while revering the interviewee’s individuality and personal diction. Colour and texture were added through my creative responses. As with Jo Parnell’s concept of a literary docu-memoir: ‘The interviewer puts on a “fictional cloak” as a writer, striving, paradoxically, to create truth by acknowledging the context of imagination and feeling for both subject and interviewer’. Revealing that I was an adoptive mother influenced the way the women responded to me. We became more than interviewer and interviewee — we were two mothers, finding a connection. The last woman I interviewed, birth mother Margaret, asked me whether I had met my adopted son’s birth mother. She seemed relieved to hear that my son and I shared a life story book about his origins, given to us by his social worker, so that his birth family would not be forgotten. Hearing Margaret’s moving story made me reflect on the journey my son’s birth mother had taken and develop a deeper empathy for her situation.

Exploring my personal experience of motherhood alongside the experience of other mothers, through experimental life writing, helped me to expand my own understanding of the complex and evolving landscape of motherhood through adoption, surrogacy and egg donation. Ultimately, I hope it will help readers do the same.

Shanta Everington is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University. Her PhD thesis is being turned into a book, Another Mother: Curating and Creating Voices of Adoption, Surrogacy and Egg Donation, to be published by Routledge in 2023.

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