'To make a story, you have to tell it all'
Mari Gallagher has written a deeply honest book about infertility, her difficult childhood, and adoption
'I decided, 'if you are going to write about this, you can't just say I did this for my children'. To make a story authentic, you have to write about yourself, and that was the biggest thing I did - I told everything. I started at the beginning. That may sound reckless, but I think, to make a story, you have to tell it all."
So says Mari Gallagher, now 57, about the process of writing Becoming A Mother, Reflections On Adoptive Parenthood, and indeed, she has written a book that is candid, unafraid, and detailed. She writes about aspects of adoption that are difficult, including the simple but often unacknowledged fact that one woman's joy begins in another woman's tragedy. She also tells her own story, in the same kind of candid detail.
The book was inspired by Mari's experiences adopting two children, Kev and Tatiana, now aged 20 and 17, from Russia and Kazakhstan, and is, simply put "the book I wanted to read, but that didn't exist.
"Not all parenthood starts with the desire to parent," Mari says, "adoptive parenting definitely does." Having felt "no maternal urge" until her mid-30s, Mari, who married Phil when she was 32, found that the desire for children "hit like a super-fast freight train" about two years later. And yet it was not to be. 'Unexplained' infertility was the diagnosis, or rather lack of one.
"'Unexplained' just means they don't know. It's no-man's land. It's not an answer. And the angry bit of me was going 'of course there's something wrong. If there wasn't something wrong, wouldn't I be getting pregnant?' That was going around in my head. I would see what I called 'apathetic parenting', and because your senses are so heightened, you're looking and being judgmental. You get into this thing of maybe being a little bit resentful: 'why did this happen to me?'"
She was, she says, "consumed" with the idea of getting pregnant, and went through two gruelling, and unsuccessful, rounds of IVF treatment. "It was brutal," Mari says, "I found the whole thing brutal. That's the only word."
At the time, Mari, now a psychotherapist, worked in a bank. She wanted to share what she was going through, but didn't dare do so under her own name. "I wanted to write, but I was absolutely terrified. I hadn't really told anyone. My sister knew - but outside of that, I didn't say anything. Shame held me back," she says. "I suppose there's a part of you that wonders why it's not happening: is there a flaw? Is there some superior being saying 'this is not for you. We're taking an executive decision, and you haven't made the cut'. Both those things hold you back. And, it is attached to a very personal part of you, which is your sex life. The minute you start to talk about that aspect of you, you're talking about someone else as well, and what happens between you. All that holds you back."
She wrote a piece for Medicine Weekly, in the mid-1990s, under a pseudonym, that led to a call from Liveline, hosted by Marian Finucane at the time, "there was a message on the answering machine. They had contacted the magazine to say would I go on? I couldn't. I just couldn't."
After two rounds, she and Phil decided not to continue with IVF, but before "when I was still in the throes of that stark passage of trying all the reproduction treatments, my partner tentatively mentioned adoption. My first reaction was 'I'm not sure about that…'" So she did "what I always do - I said 'I'll read up'. I went into the shops, and there was nothing. At all, of any sort, to read about adoption."
Soon afterwards, Mari says, "I got to a point where I thought 'if I don't get pregnant, do I want to be childless?' That was the question I had to ask myself. I really mulled over that for a while - all the possible advantages, all the considerations: 'Do you have to be a parent? Does society see you differently if you're not a parent? Do you miss out?' I mulled over all of it and thought, 'I just would love to share my life with a child, or two. That's what I want'. So I knew I was going to keep going. That was the point at which I thought, if it's a choice between having to go through adoption and it being just the two of us for the rest of our lives, I'll take the risk'."
Although the adoption was to be international - at the time, Russia was open for adoption in a way that it no longer is - the assessment was done in Ireland, by the HSE, resulting, if you are lucky, in something called a Suitability To Parent document. This is a lengthy, demanding and intrusive process, often entered into at a tricky emotional time. "Anger and disappointment at your own fertility is rumbling around in your head like the witches' cauldron from Macbeth - you're still a cauldron of emotions from what's happened to you, and you're moving into this whole new sphere where you have to think about a whole other set of priorities. It's a challenge."
What kept her going? "It was tough. But I guess I've always thought - if I become a mother after this… sometimes I would sit down, in the midst of it all, and I thought I saw him [my son]. I know that sounds really daft - but I thought I saw him, this little bundle, sitting looking over at me from the sofa. That's what I was working towards. That kept me going."
And, in 1998 Russia went through "a massive economic downturn. I was looking at photos of people queuing and queuing outside banks, and thinking, 'this could happen now'. I could see what was going on in Russia - one person's tragedy really is another person's opportunity. I didn't feel comfortable about it, but it's the way of life."
Mari was right, and in February 1999, she and Phil flew to Moscow, then on to Yekaterinburg in Siberia and another 100 miles by car to Orphanage Number 2 in the city of Nizhny Tagil, to meet six-month-old Kev Alexander Vladimir. What was she thinking, on that journey? "It was quite terrifying. It was cold, I couldn't eat - I wasn't able to, with the nerves I suppose. I had all these worries: 'Will he hate me? Will he not want me?' That was my fear. I had this thing - 'supposing he looks, and he doesn't want me?' When we met first, this has always stayed in my mind - he took a piece of my hair and a piece of my cheek, in his hands, and he pulled me in. He's 20 now," she laughs, "and he's still doing that."
Back home, "we could see, bit by bit - Kev was like a flower blossoming. He was serious, a little bit suspicious at the start. That all just blossomed out as he realised, these ones are not going to go anywhere, they're here. Any child coming from an institution will have seen loads of people come and go, minders, different faces and no face is the 'real' face. It happened quite quickly - maybe he was that type of a child? - but it wasn't difficult for him to become part of us. It happened easily."
Even so, she describes a time of post-adoption 'blues,' a period of weeks after arriving home with Kev in which - no different to any other new mother - she found herself overwhelmed at the change in her life.
"There is no physical effect with adoption, as there is with giving birth, but there is an adjustment period with this child, who isn't a newborn, is older, more active. It's a shock, and you can feel guilty - thinking 'this is a wonderful miracle, and I'm so fortunate, however… there is a downness."
It was not, she says, depression, although that can happen, more that she felt "quite blue. I was thrilled, but I was also puzzled: 'why am I feeling like this?'" Exhaustion, frustration and isolation very often go hand-in-hand with joy for new mothers, and Mari was no different, except that to those, she added anxiety.
"In the early days, whenever Kev cried, I was convinced there was something much more serious amiss than hunger, tiredness or a nappy that needed changing," she writes.
Two years later, Mari and Phil adopted Tatiana, from Kazakhstan. "Russia became difficult politically. We knew it would be a very long wait if we wanted to have two Russian-born children. My main thing was, I really wanted them to be close in age. So they could be companions, friends, for each other, which they are. There's a gap of two-and-a-half years between them." Tatiana was a little older, 10 months, when she came to Mari and Phil, and she too "blended quite quickly with us."
There are plenty of dark adoption stories, including shocking ones where parents 'give back' the child they have adopted, because they decide they can't, or don't wish, to cope. Were Mari and Phil warned about the possible difficulties, the effects of institutionalisation and the primal wound - something experts agree is a feature of children who have been removed from their birth mother, no matter how young they are when this happens - and can include feelings of loneliness, isolation, tantrums, developmental delay, and an array of challenging behaviour that can mimic the symptoms of - and is often misdiagnosed as - ADHD?
"Not at all," she says. "I think the social workers assessing us did try but at the time, denial was my cloak: 'Don't tell me those things. Don't stop me now, I am doing this'. You go into your adoption assessment with your best foot forward; it's like a job interview. You highlight all the things you're going to do great, you try not to mention the ones you're a little bit unsure about." The primal wound is something she never heard of until after she had adopted both her children - "I would have sensed sadness in both children, it did make sense," she says, of discovering this.
It was when researching post-adoption services, and discovering that at the time these were almost non-existent, that Mari began to think of changing career. She had taken a three-year sabbatical from the bank in order to be at home with Kev and Tatiana, and was carefully reading and researching every new phase of her children's development. "One of the things I noticed was that in Ireland there is very little post-adoption support. I thought that's an area I would like to work in."
After her sister - "I would say she was my best friend" - died of cancer in 2006, when she was just 44, Mari went for bereavement counselling. "It was wonderful. I was amazed that you could go in and talk your head off, with no judgment. I thought this is pretty good. So I moved in that direction." She left the bank and, in 2012, began training to be a psychotherapist; "as part of your training, you have to do 50 hours of therapy. At first I thought, 'is this just a racket?' But I was proved wrong. It was absolutely super."
In the book, Mari has written about revisiting her own childhood in therapy, growing up on a farm in Leitrim, the daughter of an alcoholic father. "There was love mixed with complete resentment," she says. "I did respect him because he did work hard, and he did taxi me around the place and bring me to things, and he did give me good advice about different things, when he was in the mood. But he was the other as well. Which has you tense and nervous, because you're not sure what's going to happen next."
Did she understand that he was an alcoholic? "I didn't. I would not even have thought that word until I went into therapy in my 40s. It would never have occurred to me. It was just who he was, part and parcel. It wasn't until I talked about it in therapy that it was clarified, and that was an amazing thing for me. The demons were flying around. It was like the cataracts fell from my eyes. It was," she says, "almost like the forming of a new me in a sense; clearing out a load of those conceptions I had. It was freeing, to know - that was a choice someone else made and I had nothing to do with it." She left home at 17 - "I went out the back door of the secondary school and straight into the front door of the bank" - but came back every weekend. "I was able to form my own life, carve out a life for myself away from it. I did worry about my mother, that everything was going to be OK with her. That brought me home a lot. A letter during the week, then I'd be home at the weekend."
When Mari was 27 her mother got cancer and died within two years. Her father died just over a year later. "That was overwhelming," she says. "It was a crisis period, where everything was in flux; home wasn't home anymore." By then, she had met Phil - on a ski holiday in France - and "he was a significant part of my life by then. When you've found a significant other, it does really help things. It makes a huge difference. He was always there - we were there for each other. And I had my sister."
How did she find the process of writing about her childhood and her parents? "In a way it was cathartic, putting it down. But it is hard to do it - there's a loyalty. The word 'disloyalty' has gone around my head, and I have seen their faces, in my mind, and wondered. But it is 30 years. I suppose the thing that kept me going is that it is my story, and I have expressed my love for them."
The need for truth, for the telling of "it all" extends to Mari's children. She has tracked down both of their birth families and made contact with them. "There is," she says "receptiveness there although nothing has happened yet. The information is there. I hold it in trust for them." This means that when - if - Kev and Tatiana decide they wish to be in touch with their first families, they will not discover a trail gone cold or, as can happen, that death has intervened before them. Becoming A Mother has been written as the book Mari would have wanted to read before she began the journey of adoption. It is full of the things she was not told - the warnings, the recommendations, the research - as well as the many discoveries she made along the way. It is comprehensive, kind, and very useful. And it does not shirk from the hard truths of adoption, including the particularly dark history in this country. The book is dedicated to Inna and Marina - Kev and Tatiana's birth mothers - acknowledgement that without their pain, there would not have been joy for Mari; that they are part of the story too.
Becoming A Mother, Reflections On Adoptive Parenthood by Mari Gallagher is out now, €16, published by Orpen Press. Fifty percent of royalties will go to Barnardos, who provide post-adoption support. www.barnardos.ie
Baby Boom: International Adoption Stories
Of all the controversies in her career, Madonna's adoption of four children has probably been the most heated. Accusations of 'buying babies' have dogged her since she adopted David from Malawi in 2006, followed by Mercy (pictured left) in 2009, and four-year-old twins Esther and Stella in 2017.
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt:
Along with three biological children, Brangelina adopted Maddox from Cambodia in 2002, Zahara from Ethiopia in 2005 and Pax from Vietnam in 2007. Now divorced, rumour has it that Angelina is planning another adoption.
The actress adopted a son, Jackson, from South Africa in 2012, and a girl, August, from the US in 2015, and has said "This was definitely not a second option for me. It was always my first."
Along with four biological children, Mia Farrow adopted ten more children: Lark Song, Summer Song and Soon-Yi adopted with first husband Andre Previn; Moses and Dylan, adopted after her divorce from Previn who were later co-adopted by Woody Allen; Tam, Quincy, Frankie-Minh, Isaiah Justus and Thaddeus Wilk after her split from Allen.
Three of her adopted children are deceased: Tam, Lark, and Thaddeus.
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