"She's not my real mum you know"
It was said so casually – a matter-of-fact statement that temporarily stopped the room. It was just me and my youngest daughter visiting my mum; the eldest and her dad having stayed in London. This was our first visit to nanny’s without them – I’d made the most of enjoying this new, relaxed dynamic where, for a few short days, I wasn’t trying to keep both a 10 and 5 year-old happy, in this quiet, ‘tick-tock of a clock’ environment so different to the harum scarum 90-mile an hour pace and noise of our home.
Mum’s brother, who has slipped effortlessly into surrogate granddad role since my dad died, misses a beat or two as he’s told this. His eyes flicker from my daughter, to her pointing finger and, finally, who’s at the end of it – me. Yes, I know all about that, love,” he says gently. “But she is, isn’t she? Because she’s the one taking care of you." I breathe again; my daughter nods and goes back to combing what’s left of his hair. And I could kiss him – this 80-year-old who’s never experienced anything to do with adoption before – was put on the spot, Paxman-style, and came up with an election winner. And, believe me, I wasn’t hurt – it wasn’t the first time I’d heard her say this. She’d referred to her ‘real mum’ a few weeks earlier, when she told me she didn’t want to call her by our usual expression, ‘tummy mummy’, anymore. I said that was fair enough – but maybe she could call her by her first name – or ‘birth mum’, instead? And then I explained that, although I hadn’t given birth to her, and couldn’t do anything to change that, in every other way I was, and always would be, her ‘real mum’ and she was my beloved daughter.
I know this pleased her but I also now think that, for her, it’s only half the point. She needs to say it – her ‘real’, actual mum, whose DNA she shares, and who she already fantasises about coming to her next birthday party – exists. I wonder if saying it out loud is her way of keeping that truth – her birth mum’s existence, out there, somewhere – part of our family narrative? Or that she needs me to be able to hear it, and to show I can deal with it, ‘hold’ it for her, as part of feeling secure and safe – after all, if I can’t handle this truth, then how is she meant to, now, or in the future?
It somehow reminds me of a film I’ve not seen since I was a kid but which left a huge impression on me. It’s an old Hollywood noir, with a world-weary gumshoe detective tasked with investigating the supposed death of a beautiful young woman called Laura. He has nothing to go on but a haunting portrait of her and various reminiscences of her character by many different people in her life. He becomes obsessed and enthralled – who is the real Laura and why are there so many wildly at odds contradictions in the reports of what she was like? She is, essentially, the main character, yet she never makes an appearance or speaks for herself – until, that is, the very end, when it’s suddenly revealed she’s not dead after all and she and the besotted detective finally meet. I’ve no recollection of where – if anywhere – their relationship goes after that. What on earth happened next….?
My daughter is lucky, in some ways, that we have tons of photos of birth mum at various stages of her life. In fact, recently, when I bought each of my daughters a lovely photo frame, within a nano-second my youngest has flipped through appropriately-sized photos and selected and dexterously fitted the most hauntingly beautiful one of her birth mum. She put it in pride of place on her bedside shelf. And, if you want the truth, I was temporarily poleaxed to find a photo of all of us, that used to be propped up in that same space, discarded, having slipped, unnoticed, beneath her bed. Now, whenever I say goodnight to my daughter, my eyes often wander to her ‘Laura’, in that photo frame, gazing back at me enigmatically.
My daughter is also fortunate that there are years’ worth of ‘birth mum’ reminiscences we can ask for from close, supportive, birth family members we have regular contact with. For now, at least, they amply fulfil the birth family connection my daughter so obviously needs.
I wish we’d had the opportunity to meet birth mum before our daughter came to us – but it just didn’t materialise. I wish I could help her know that she really does share her birth mum’s smile, and her eyes – which she does, but, like her, I only know this from looking at photographs.
But one thing I do know – when and if, at some point in the future, my daughter seeks out her ‘Laura’, I am determined to be at her side, and loving her and supporting her every step of the way. Because that’s what a ‘real mum’ does.