Tuesday 17 September 2019

Mari Gallagher: 'Reader's message gave me the push to complete my mission on adoption'

The Sunday Independent's 'Letter I Wish I'd Sent' series helped me finish a book on adoptive parenting, writes Mari Gallagher

PRECIOUS TIME: Writing about adoption involves the prising open of a Pandora’s box of memories and emotions
PRECIOUS TIME: Writing about adoption involves the prising open of a Pandora’s box of memories and emotions

An adoption book from the point of view of the adoptive parent requires a broad church of approaches. Writing about adoption from any angle involves the prising open of a Pandora's box of memories and emotions, no matter which party to adoption you represent: adopted person, birth parent or adoptive parent.

The topic is complex - a complicated vortex of angles, attitudes, history and entangled feelings. Adoption's entire premise is rooted in difficult-to-talk-about matters: abandonment and loss, and most of us, understandably, swerve away from easily broaching such matters.

In Ireland in particular, adoption is often spoken about in a tone that suggests "Don't mention the war" so that explains when two decades ago I first considered adoption, I searched in vain for a book suitable for a prospective adoptive parent.

At the time I would have liked to have found a book from the perspective of an Irish adoptive parent but instead the shelves were weighed down with a selection of parenting titles that stretched from babyhood to teens but the adoptive parent was not catered for. Even now, with 50,000 adoptions in Ireland, of which 5,000 are from outside the country, no parenting book for Irish adoptive parents is available.

There is much trepidation then in being the first Irish adoptive parent to have written about their experience. Adoption is deeply personal and sharing details requires careful handling, especially when your nearest and dearest are your subject matter.

To give an authentic account of my experience, I had to look at myself close up. How could I write about how I came to be an adoptive parent without examining my reasons for adopting in the first place?

'Becoming a Mother' by Mari Gallagher
'Becoming a Mother' by Mari Gallagher

This meant I had to write about the dark days of discovery of my infertility, the sweat, tears and failure of assisted reproductive treatments, the tentative consideration of becoming a mother to a child that I did not give birth to, while climbing down from my high horse (''Of course I will get pregnant'') and accept not everything is possible.

The process of giving myself up to being assessed for suitability to parent was followed by the long, arduous path through intercountry adoption bureaucracy and Russian geographical infrastructure until finally I held my son in my arms.

The learning then began: adoption is complex. Just because a child is adopted as an infant does not mean that they have no sense of their relinquishment. Nancy Newton Verrier in her study of the feelings of the adopted child The Primal Wound was unequivocal in her pronouncement of the connection between child and birth mother as ''mystical'' and ''spiritual'' and the severing of the same producing a deep hole she dubs a ''primal'' wound.

Parenting the adopted child requires empathy and understanding. I had to look closely at myself and evaluate what was going on for me: a daunting task as I tried to answer the question, how was I parented? Because how a person is parented determines how they parent. This warranted a trip down into my childhood in rural Leitrim and the challenges of being brought up in a home where alcohol dependency was the order of the day, the expunging of such memories in the counselling room was an earth-moving experience: I swear I could see the black-cloaked demons shifting over my head as the words tumbled out, a pile of tear-soaked tissues on my lap.

Such purging cleared the way for a measured view of the reality of adoption: the adoptive parent is called on to display a generous dollop of empathy, to take on board an incontrovertible fact - the existence of another woman who is the bearer of their child. Establishing contact (actual reunion has not yet happened) with my children's birth families in Russia and Kazakhstan was a tumultuous experience for me, I can only imagine what it was like for my children.

The academic Ruth A Moran writes from personal experience of the stages of reunion for the adopted person: paralysis - the adopted person looks at the face of the one who gave them life; eruption - emotions wash over the adopted person like the aftershock of an earthquake; loss and grief - the realisation that the primary bonding can never be recaptured; and finally empowerment - the adopted person moves from acceptance to self-knowledge and then self-awareness.

Becoming A Mother was my letter to myself, my paean to adoptive parenthood and a thank you to two special women who made my motherhood possible. As I was getting to the final draft of my book, a series in the Sunday Independent captured my heart. Letters written by people who had ''unfinished business'' with people close to them. One sunny Sunday in June 2017 as I was trying to put together a conclusion to my book, I opened my newspaper and there it was: a mother writing a letter to a mother titled 'To the birth mother of my child'.

This adoptive parent articulated precisely how I felt and she had written the conclusion to my book, eloquently encapsulating what I realised I was trying to say throughout Becoming A Mother and beautifully illustrating a collaboration between birth mother and adoptive mother.

  • 'Becoming A Mother: Reflections on Adoptive Parenthood' by Mari Gallagher is published by Orpen Press. €16 orpenpress.com marigallaghertherapist.com

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