...And This Is My Adopted Daughter Polly

Published in Adoption Today (December 2013 issue) | Written by Polly Fielding

Anyone who completes the lengthy, involved and demanding process of adoption does so with a desire to meet a child's needs through loving nurturing. But whilst the basic requirements for food, shelter, safety, protection and emotional stimulation seem obvious, it's not always easy to know how to fulfil them. The adopted child is not a blank slate and may have already suffered some damaging ordeals before reaching your home.
Polly Dressed For Ballet

I want to share some of my own experiences, which may give you a clearer insight into the minefield that perhaps best describes the parenting of any child, let alone an adopted one.

As the mother of five children and a primary-school teacher, I'm well aware that each child has its own unique personality. Treating them all in exactly the same way will not work. Unfortunately, no baby comes with a set of instructions and even if they did, each set would have to be different!

I was born to a single mother who desperately wanted to keep me, as I discovered when, as an adult, I traced her. She had to work so after a couple of months of breast-feeding and bonding with me she decided to get someone else to look after me in the hope of eventually being able to bring me up herself. I was fostered out eight times over the following seven months - no-one felt able to manage this baby who cried so much. The last fostering left me in need of hospitalisation. My mother was advised that it would be in my best interests to have me adopted.

A couple, with their own three year old daughter, was found for me by an adoption society. My adoptive mother had a natural understanding of how to treat a baby - I screamed whenever she took me out of my cot, she told me years later, but by taking me out for increasingly longer periods she gradually accustomed me to going out in a pram.

She slowly won my trust and broke down the withdrawal coping mechanism I had developed by nine months of age. To quote from my book 'And This Is my Adopted Daughter':

       I'm lying in my pushchair in the garden.
       "Have a little sleep, dear," Mummy says to me. She kisses me and pulls up the green hood.
       I watch her walk back to the house. I feel happy and warm. The cover makes me feel safe. I like the smells. I can see grass and pretty flowers. There's a noise in the sky, Mummy says it's called a 'plane.' It's loud. I can hear it for a long time, it makes me sleepy...

This trusting confidence in my adoptive mother lasted until I began to assert myself. Then suddenly, it seemed that nothing I did was right:

       Some days I don't behave in the way she thinks I should. She tells me off when I've done something wrong at school. She says I'm not working hard enough, tells me I must play the other children's games and not get them to play mine. When I argue with her she doesn't like it.
       "Don't be cheeky," she says. "Just listen and do as I say."
       She hardly ever smiles now when she meets me.

I became unhappy, confused, desperate to please. My mother began to compare me constantly and unfavourably with her own daughter. My adoptive father, normally quiet and reserved, began to beat me whenever I refused any order he gave me.

My acute feelings of fear, rejection and insecurity were reinforced one afternoon at school:

       I'm having an argument in the playground with Gail, who's seven, like me. A crowd has gathered as we scream at each other.
       "Anyway, you're adopted!" she shrieks.
       "And you're a pig!" I yell back.
       She carries on shouting. "Your real Mummy didn't want you so she gave you away. You haven't got a proper Mummy."
       "It's not true! You're lying!" But at the back of my mind I can hear Mummy telling her friends, "This is my daughter Rita and this is my adopted daughter Polly."

When I was twelve my parents adopted another baby, sealing my sense that I was not 'good enough' for them. I began to secretly self-harm.

I also developed a strategy which I hoped would make me more lovable. After studying my older sister carefully - her mannerisms, tone of voice, expressions... I tried to be like her in every way possible. This tactic, of course,

did not work. Finally noticing what I was up to, my mother mocked and scorned my efforts. And my adoptive father, although I sensed he did not approve of her harsh words, remained a silent onlooker.

It's true that my adoptive parents gave me a home and a good education but my self esteem was not improved by being told that I should be grateful for these advantages. I felt unworthy, inadequate and guilty. And I was sure that somehow, I was to blame for the way I felt.

However, it wasn't all bad; there were times when she would greet me with a cup of tea when I came home from school, treat me to an afternoon out with her or buy me something I liked. If she had never shown me that there were times when she did approve of me I would have relinquished any hope that I could eventually be accepted by her. Instead I became increasingly anxious and fearful, hypersensitive to her every mood.

In an effort to make myself feel better I focussed intently on my school work and, despite my strong fear of failure, gained excellent exam results and became a teacher. Whilst away training I had moments alone with my adoptive father which showed that he actually cared very deeply about me:

       The restaurant is cosy. We sit at a table in the bay window.
       Daddy doesn't talk much. He listens patiently. He seems relaxed, interested, so I prattle on about college life until our coffee cups are empty and we're ready to order food.
       It's raining heavily outside. People are moving quickly past the window, heads down, intent on reaching their destinations, but Daddy and I are going nowhere.
       After our meal I take advantage of this rare time on our own.
       "Daddy, what do you know about my natural mother?"
       He takes my question in his stride, looking no more surprised than if I'd asked him what time his coach is leaving. He gazes out of the window as he remembers.
       "Not much more than you already know. She was a fine looking woman. She did ask us not to change your name; she'd already had you Christened Polly Marie."
       I finish my glass of wine and Daddy polishes off his meal with a good quality brandy. We share his umbrella as I take him on a tour of the college grounds, introduce him proudly to some friends.
       Five o'clock already! The afternoon has passed so fast. Back at the coach station I kiss Daddy goodbye.
       "I've had a lovely day," I tell him. "I love you so much, Daddy."
       "I love you too," he says, looking directly at me. And he means it.

But even as an adult, I never completely gave up hope of pleasing my mother though it was an impossible quest. She continued to make it clear that I was a permanent disappointment to the family and could never match up to their own daughter. Excited to be expecting my third child I rang her with the news:

       "Mummy, I'm pregnant. The results came back today. I wanted you to be one of the first to know."
       No answer.
       I'm trying to reassure myself that it's a bit of a shock, perhaps she didn't think we wanted more children.
       There's no sound except the steady ticking of the clock opposite me. Has she hung up? Panic is setting in.
       "Are you still there, Mummy?" I ask anxiously.
       "Yes, I'm here."
       I recognise that tone. It's the one she uses to begin a torrent of negative comments. A mixture of fear and anger well up inside me.
       "I'm not surprised. You're only having three children to be like Rita."

Although I developed serious emotional difficulties as a result of my upbringing I managed, for many years, to hide the damage. I struggle, though, to this day with powerful self-destructive feelings but, with the help of therapy, have learned not to act on them and I have developed a far more positive, healthy towards myself.

It is not uncommon for adopted children to wish to trace a natural parent and after years of searching I found my birth mother in the USA and flew out to meet her. Although I will never regret finding her, it was not a fairytale ending for her or me... And sadly, my adoptive mother reacted to the hurt that she felt by refusing to speak to me for years and cutting me out of her will.

There is no doubt that I was an especially needy, attention-seeking child. Traumatised children are particularly difficult to understand and bring up. A lot of post-adoption support is needed, which my parents did not have.

Many people undertake the important role of parenting with no preparation whatsoever. Anyone adopting a child has given the subject much thought and consideration. However, it is a constant learning curve and none of us can be the perfect parent (they don't exist!). You only need to be 'good enough' for you and your child to to reap the immense rewards.

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