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Thinking about birth mothers

For quite a while now I have been thinking of writing a blog post about birth mothers. There have been three main reasons why I have been thinking about them.

Firstly because of a conversation with a woman on the bus. We had both come out of a session of Aquafit at the local Sports Centre. This lady was brought up in the West Indies.  She told me that this year she hopes to go on a cruise, as it will be her 70th birthday. It will also be her husband’s 80th birthday, their Golden Wedding celebration and her grandson’s 21st birthday. She was beaming as she told me of all these happy occasions to come.

Then her facial expression changed. She grew more serious and said, “My birth mother died aged twenty, giving birth to me. I think of her often”.

After a moment’s pause I asked who had brought her up. She said an aunt. I then ventured to ask whether she had had a good childhood and she said, “Yes. My aunt was pretty good to me”.

The next reason for writing about this theme was after watching a BBC programme interviewing birth mothers form 1970. They had all been persuaded to hand their babies over for adoption. I don’t think anyone interviewed had taken this action voluntarily. Strangely enough, although by the 1970s there would have been benefits awarded to single mothers and presumably some support, the girls themselves had seen no way out of their dilemma. Mostly they have given birth aged seventeen and been unduly influenced/pressurised by their own mothers and agreed to adoption. Some still longed to hear from their long lost children. I believe one woman had actually made contact with her child and the encounter had gone well. It was quite moving to see how deeply all the others longed for contact after all these years.

The existence of the Internet may make contact easier these days but equally the passage of years may make it less likely.

The third reason that has made me think of birth mothers is the amount of children’s novels published recently where the theme is mourning the death of the main character’s mother. I have just read three such books but I think there are others. I wonder. Does a certain idea float in the air and inspire authors? All three books I mention below are moving and excellently written. I recommend them heartily.

the Boy Who Sailed         The Secret Hen House theatre

A Library of Lemons

A last thought on birth mothers. How much dreadful suffering is going on around the world today! There are birth mothers (and fathers) struggling to live in refugee camps. There are mothers whose daughters have been kidnapped by rebel troops and raped and murdered.

I don’t want to end on a dismal note because often there is good news around somewhere if one can find it. The good news from me today is that on our street healthy triplets have been born to two proud parents. Congratulations and Hooray!

A Historical Perspective and Looking Forward with the Younger Generation.

 

A Very Happy New Year to everyone reading this!

As we start the New Year I look back with gratitude for many things.  We have had some excellent holidays – to the Highlands of Scotland – to Norway – to Corsica.  The grandchildren have grown – two of them have turned into good readers who love stories. Those were happy events on the personal front.  On more of a “learning front” I have joined a Writing for children Workshop at the City Literary Institute and find this most helpful.  I am also grateful to the BBC for some excellent programmes they showed towards the end of the year during Black History Month.

black-british

Recently a Facebook Friend posted a message about the series which was entitled “Black and British. A Forgotten History” Her message was “Brilliant tv, thanks BBC “  I certainly agree.

She gave a link to the 4th episode.

The Homecoming   Black and British: A Forgotten History Episode 4 of 4

“Historian David Olusoga concludes his series with the three African kings who stood up to Empire, an irresistible crooner, race riots in Liverpool and the shaping of black British identity in the 20th century.”

At Christmas we duly gave Mia the book I mentioned in my blogpost in November “Great Women who changed the WORLD”. I hope it will inspire her.

great-women

To recap our situation for any new readers: in the 1970s we adopted two sons who were born in London, both from a Caribbean background. Now we are blessed with four grandchildren from those sons. Sam has two daughters and Jah has a son and a daughter.

We had the joy at Christmas to all go and see the pantomime “Sleeping Beauty” at the Hackney Empire. Sam who has moved a slight distance away from London, feels the need for constant ‘cultural inputs’. The Hackney Empire is a good place for this and the pantomime was brilliant!

Here is a picture of part of our multiracial family party walking home from the pantomime.

after-the-panto-16-2

These young ones are the future. We hope for great things for them and for our multiracial society.

Adoption and Identical Twins. Nurture versus Nature.

I think I have always been interested in ADOPTION, maybe because my best friend at school was adopted.  It interested me to realise that she had to move from one environment to an entirely different one.

Later on D and I adopted two boys, to complete our family of two daughters born to us.

I have also been interested in adopted TWINS, although there are no twins in our family.

identical-twins

I have often recorded programmes about twins. Of special interest are those who were separated at birth. If they are identical twins, so many amazing coincidences and likenesses have been recorded when they meet up. For example, they often call their children by the same names, or have similar jobs. Many even more amazing likenesses have  been recorded in scientific studies of identical twins.   Sometimes it can be after as long as 50 years of growing up in a completely different environment, or maybe even more years of complete separation!

This is especially interesting and raises the interesting question of Nature versus Nurture.

The programme Twin sisters. A World Apart (BBC4 on 4th July 2016 ) sounded a likely programme for me to enjoy. In actual fact, it surpassed my expectations.

twins-a-world-apart

 

This documentary tells the poignant true story of twin sisters from China.  Their names, given by their adoptive parents, are Mia and Alexandra.  They were  found as babies in a cardboard box in 2003 and adopted by two separate sets of parents.  Mia was adopted by parents from Sacramento in the USA and Alexandra by parents from a remote fishing village in Norway.

In the US, Mia is raised a typical all-American girl, with a bustling life filled with violin lessons, girl scouts and soccer, while Alexandra grows up in the quietude of the breathtakingly beautiful but isolated village of Fresvik, Norway, where she happily looks after a pet rat in her family’s shed/workshop.

When they received the OK to adopt an abandoned Chinese baby, neither of the adoptive families were told their daughters were twins. However, due to an unavoidable delay of one day for one of the couples, they all met on the same day when they signed official papers to adopt their new daughters.

They should have been signing the papers on separate days and thus they would never have met. What a coincidence!

The couples were each carrying their new baby daughter prior to signing the official papers.   When they saw both girls, they wondered whether the children could be twins because they looked so alike. The Chinese authorities said “no”, but somehow the new parents persisted and managed to arrange a DNA test and the girls were indeed declared to be identical twins.

Both sets of parents understood how important this link is and so far have managed to get the children together for one visit in Norway and they plan to meet up on the next occasion in the United States, at the home of the American family. I believe the girls were about eight years old on the occasion of the visit. They got on beautifully.

Interestingly everybody noticed that the girls often had similar mannerisms, even though they have been brought up in such different environments. The Norwegian little girl is being brought up in the remote Norwegian countryside. She can speak a few words of English. By the time they next meet, she will probably be able to speak quite a bit more. I am not sure whether the American girl was learning a few words of Norwegian, but they have certainly already managed already to communicate and enjoy each other’s company.

I’ll look out for more true-life stories about adopted twins.

 

Happy New Year! LEISURE ACTIVITIES with the family in the 1980s +1980s Racism.

Resuming the story of our multiracial family. . .When we moved to London in 1983, we joined a church in Camden Town. The congregation was very small and very friendly. There was one family of two children from a dual-heritage background. The mother was from Northern Ireland. The father was Asian but he died when the children were young, so the mother was bringing them up alone..

There were adults from the Caribbean, from Trinidad and Tobago, but no children.

 

There were also adults from Guyana and a delightful family from Ghana

The Ghanaian family had two tiny children and a baby, but every time their youngest could be separated from the parents, he or she was sent back to Ghana to be looked after by relatives until the young parents had finished their studies and could return to Ghana to join their children.

So we were in a multiracial setting in London, but at church there were no black children for our children to play with. Sam was already 11 years old and we hoped that he could meet other secondary age children as well as his school friends, so we looked around for another multiracial congregation. Fortunately we found one in Tottenham.

Travel to Tottenham was fairly easy by car or public transport and we attended there for many years. The children had plenty of black children and young teenagers to be with and to share ideas with.

The Minister and his wife took the children on holidays. They were very adventurous and took the children as far as Cornwall. This proved to be a learning experience for the London kids. They encountered some hostility from the Cornish children on one occasion, but I imagine that the minister dealt with the situation successfully. We only heard about this later on. The Minister and his wife took children back to Cornwall the following year. Each time many adventurous activities were available for all the children, including abseiling and caving. These holidays were excellent occasions for all.

I don’t have very clear memories about the Sunday school or the activities there, but I feel that we did as much as we could to ensure that the boys would meet other black children. We knew perfectly well the pressures that young black people had to endure in those days. Our son Sam was a well-motivated, polite and lovely young teenager, but he was frequently “picked on” by the police for absolutely nothing. On one occasion he was simply walking home from school and a policeman stopped him

London policeman

Image courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Policeman: “What’you doing round here son?”

Sam: “I’m, walking home.”

Policeman “Oh. YES??” Sneer: “ I bet you don’t belong round here. . .”

This kind of statement was stupid from every conceivable point of view. Yes. Our house was in Primrose Hill, but if the policeman felt that black children could not live in the private houses, there was also a huge Council block of flats in our road, so obviously he could have ‘belonged’ in one kind of property along that road. (It was a very mixed community in every sense. Long may London remain like that.)

I am talking about the 1980s and I don’t want to recount the other occasions when Sam had to endure unfriendly reaction from the police. (Sadly there were a few.) However, I will say, that when I observed young black adults chatting to each other on the Underground, I sometimes noticed that they were discussing their own encounters with the police and that they were always extremely humorous about these encounters. I was quietly eavesdropping on their humorous comments. Of course I kept quiet. Their conversations were nothing to do with me, but inside me I saluted their reaction to this kind of harassment and humiliation. Clearly humour can help in many occasions. As parents when we tried to help Sam, humour was not an appropriate reaction, but among the young people themselves, it probably gave them an upper hand on the situation that they constantly found themselves in. Sharing these experiences with their friends and putting their own gloss onto the encounters would help them to deal with the injustice.

Nowadays, in 2015 I am in the grandparent generation and not involved in bringing up teenagers and I like to think that open racist comments are not so prevalent. I do not know, but let’s hope not!

Multiracial Family. Childhood artefacts remembered – D.

I realised recently that I have not asked D. for his quick memories of the children’s childhood. For this exercise nobody has been allowed a long period of cogitation.

(Before I mention his memories, I should say that since I indulged in a few from my own childhood, I should here mention some that he remembered from his own childhood – namely digging a network of drains in his back garden staying on a family farm and working out bus timetables for a fictional bus company.)

He came up with the musical toy we had for Lucy, our first baby. It came from Switzerland and is still in use with the latest grandchild!

musical box

Next he chose the Mr Men books that we read to all the children.

I don’t know when the “Little Miss” books arrived. They were written later and were probably not in time for our girls.

Sam’s bike of course came up as a significant part of his boyhood.

bike

 

 

 

 

 

 

. . . . . . . . . . . .as did the tank of tropical fish. I don’t know why I did not come up with the fish tank.

fish

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net  tropical fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Since D. often travelled abroad, I was the one who usually had to clean it out (not to mention who had to remove the poor little fish that died.)

As we talked about bringing up the children, we both remembered the intercom system that we had to use for our first babies. We lived in such an enormous manse and could not heat our bedroom enough to have the babies in, so we had to put them in a small bedroom and rely on the intercom.

One day I swear that a foreign language came through loud and clear. It must have been a quirk of the soundwaves. Sometimes one remembers the strangest things.

Multiracial Family. Childhood Memories (continued) – artefacts varied. .

The thing that spurred me on to ask our children for memories of their childhood, was something our third granddaughter said. She and her brother had been living abroad for over two years. When they were last in our house, she was four years old. When the children next visited us, she ran round the house saying “I remember that… I missed it. Oh. And I remember that… I missed it.”

She even “missed” the stool I used to have for her to reach the sink in the bathroom. Children can melt your heart sometimes!

It was she who plays with one item I remember from my childhood. It is a beautifully knitted woollen dress. It was probably made nearly 70 years ago.

 Doll's dress

Our other grandchildren have not been interested in dolls, but this little one loves playing with them at our house. She loves dressing up – herself – and dressing all the dolls. She always puts this particular dress on any doll that it can fit. In the picture below, the doll is a bit small for the dress, but I think the photo shows the dress off to advantage. The colour has not faded. It almost looks as good as new!

In my own childhood I did not have a Chinese doll. We bought this one in Malaysia for Lucy and Anna.

Interestingly enough I did have a black doll. Here is the proof.

O and doll

Something I remember from my own childhood is an artefact from Poland. My father visited there before World War 2. He brought back an oval piece of wood. It was stained very dark brown and the outline of a cathedral had been etched, thus shown in a light colour. Underneath were the words Krakow. As Poland was behind the Iron Curtain during my childhood, the name Krakow seemed very exotic to me. I no longer have the artefact, so cannot show the actual artwork.

Krakow - Cathedral 2

Krakow Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna mentioned as a memory one item that I would quote – not of my own childhood, but something that has been with me all through our children’s childhood and is with me every day today. The artist was called Mabel, Lucy Atwell. It is something that must have ‘saved’ the planet of many many pieces of paper. It is a shopping list that one can wipe clean every time the article has been bought.

Recycled shopping list

Instead of paper lists, I use it about twice a week, rub out what has been bought and start again. It has been in use for about 53 years so far. . . . It was this shopping list that started me off on the Memory project.

Terminology and the emotive power of words, especially with regard to race

Recently my husband D. was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe with the drama group “3rd Thought”. The actors were presenting either a poem, a story, or a scene from a play to the public as a one-to-one performance. Sometimes, especially when a group of foreigners came for their story, a small family group shared in the experience. At the Edinburgh Festival there were people from Germany, Japan, Korea and many other countries, so sometimes they came up in a group simply because they needed help with the language.

1459821_764991816857111_1487635275530316461_n Sometimes a simple poem has a very moving effect on the participant. One person was even moved to tears. This reminded me of the power of words.

During the last decades, words referring to race have changed fairly frequently. For mixed-race, we now often say ‘dual-heritage. I no long hear the phrase that used to be common – ‘half-caste’. That sounds offensive now to my ears. And yet I remember that at a book launch of one of my books in early 1990s, a child came up to me and explained, to my surprise that she was ‘quarter-caste’. I had not heard that before, but this definition evidently pleased the child in question.

Nowadays people can be frowned upon if they use what is considered to be out-dated terminology. For this reason I salute the founders of a new website that honours different cultures and backgrounds of children. The title uses strong metaphors and thus avoids the problem of current or outdated terminology. It is called Mirrors, Windows, Doors. http://www.mirrorswindowsdoors.org/wp

windows doorsImage courtesy of sattva at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I quote from the website itself: © Marjorie Coughlan and Mirrors Windows Doors, 2014

“Those words were originally coined by Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, who specialised in African American children’s literature. In a 1990 article re-published recently here by Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), she wrote:

‘Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

Clearly the website will recommend books that offer new insights and will embrace a world view. That is something to be welcomed.

 

 

Adoption and the home-grown helpful sisters

One day somebody asked me about our experience of adopting two sons. That wasn’t such an unusual question, but her following comment rather surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have.

She said “The sisters must have been very generous-hearted”.

I ask myself: Did I take it for granted that our children would be “generous-hearted”? Did I simply assume that they would benefit from having the brothers?

We exposed our daughters from the ages of four and two to a different kind of society when we went to work and live in Western Malaysia for a few years.

map W.MalaysiaImage courtesy of Thanamat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Exposure to a different kind of society can be a very ‘eye-opening’ experience for people of any age. It was easy for Lucy and Anna to see that they were quite fortunate and that they could share with others.

Clearly some people in Malaysia were far far richer than we were, but there was poverty in some places for all to see. And once a week we looked after a little child who suffered from Cerebral Palsy. Lucy and Anna liked her and observed how she could do so little for herself, yet they had many things in common with her. She was a child like them. They enjoyed making her smile and laugh and sharing funny situations with her. One example I can remember was when our kitten jumped into the dolls pram and let the girls push him round the garden.

kittenImage courtesy of digidreamgrafix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This made all the girls laugh long and loud. So Yes. They had fun with her, but Lucy and Anna were also definitely “generous-hearted” in helping to entertain and care for this little girl. (Unfortunately it is so long ago that I cannot remember her name.)

The little girl was brought to us every Tuesday, by one of the missionaries who lived in her town. She then stayed one or two nights with us and I took her to the local school for children with a variety of disabilites. It was called “The Spastic School” and indeed most of the children who attended were like her and suffered from Cerebral Palsy.

On her first “sleep-over” it was not easy looking after her even when she was asleep, because naturally she dribbled a bit onto her pillow and the ants soon found that out. However, during that first night, we managed to defeat the ants by putting the four legs of the cot in big saucers of water and the ants could not get over the water. I think that everything else, including her food, was quite simple to deal with, although now I cannot imagine what we gave her to eat.

As I have said, the little girl stayed one or two nights with us every week. It was the missionary who brought her, but it was her mother who came to collect her by bus when it was time for her to go home. It was so moving to see her little face light up every time she heard her mother’s footsteps as she came to collect her! I think she was happy with us and the school was most helpful with providing her with enriching experiences and activities.  It was clear that she benefited from attending there, but nothing is as good as a Mum coming to collect a child with love written all over her face! Our girls were always amazed that their little friend could hear the mother long before they heard her footsteps.

***

         We were in Malaysia for three years. We then returned to England and applied to adopt a baby. Our children were aged 8 and 6 when baby Sam joined the family. Their baby brother gave them great joy all along, so maybe being “generous-hearted” did not apply. They played with him, watched him if I put him on rug to kick while I was preparing food in the kitchen and generally enjoyed helping with him and playing with him. He was very adored and from the moment he arrived. He definitely enriched all our lives.

playing 16.30.47Anna and Sam having fun in a make-believe tent.

By the time we applied to adopt Jah, the girls were much older. They were already teenagers. I think Lucy, as the eldest, felt protective of us during the settling-in period and maybe she thought that it would become even more difficult for us during the years ahead, but they were both so great.

In my last blog post there is a photo of Jah on his 5th birthday.

5th b'day Jah

If you look carefully in the background you can see a big girl standing behind the boy in red. That was Anna. She was wonderful at helping to arrange games and activities for the young brothers

Well. The more I write here, the more I realise that we are indeed extremely fortunate in our daughters as well as our sons! And YES. They benefited in many ways, but they were also definitely “generous-hearted”.

Jah’s hair and hair in general.

When I went out with Jah into the city centre of Leicester, not only did I receive criticism about his name, but also about his hair, his matted locks – again always from black people.

Jah and hobby horse

“You should have his hair cut.”  They sometimes clicked their teeth with disapproval, or shook their heads.

These comments were hard to deal with.  We spoke to our social worker, but she was reluctant to broach the matter of Jah’s hair with his birth father.  In those days we expected that the adoption process could begin fairly soon.  She didn’t want to annoy him or do anything that would delay his signature.

One could write at length about hair.  There must be plenty of magazines that feature hair.  I suppose that some people with luscious hair are happy about that.  However, my observation is that many people wish their hair would be different.  Often curly-haired people say they would prefer straight hair and vice-versa.

I remember attending a family wedding, where about five young teenagers were present. They all normally had curly hair, but someone had brought a hair-straightener with them and one by one each teenager appeared with unusually straight hair. I expect they enjoyed the experience of feeling different. Personally I missed their naturally curly locks.  I thought they looked much prettier before.

My daughter-in-law tells me that her mother told all her daughters that their hair is their crowning glory.  I like that positive approach to Afro-Caribbean hair.  And I love the beautiful and varied hairstyles they adopt.

images_006 

cornrow plaits

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some people view Afro-Caribbean hair with less enthusiasm.  They record the struggle they have had over tangled hair and the long process of having the hair put in plaits. – a process that can take at least a couple of hours.  Fortunately Mia, our granddaughter – Sam’s daughter – is quite happy about the plaiting, as she is allowed to watch a dvd during the process and she LOVES watching films!

My short, straight hair can only be varied when it is newly cut. It progresses through the following phases:-

  • Short, newly-cut and smart  (I like to think)
  • OK. Settling down (I like to think)
  • Looks fairly good (I like to think)
  • Suddenly gets straggly and looks urgently in need of trimming (I know!)

During our early days with Jah we made an exciting discovery.  There was a group called “Harmony” that had been formed to give support to multiracial families, both adoptive and natural.  We found their meetings so helpful.  I can see now that any foster parents of black or mixed-race children should have automatically been given to information on hair and skin care.  I hope they are given this information today. We had to find out things bit by bit.  We were fortunate to have eventually discovered the Harmony group.

Harmony badge

One family we met at a Harmony meeting had done well with their daughter’s hair.  They had a friend who showed them how to do cornrow plaiting.  I was glad that Sam and Jah were boys and could get away without having their hair plaited, although of course I knew that some boys did choose to have complicated hairstyles.

Here is a book that I think sounds fun and would be enjoyable.  (Usually I do not like to suggest that a book is to be recommended mainly for girls or mainly for boys, but in this case I think this book would appeal more to girls)  Princess Katrina and the Hair Charmer, by Christina Shingler [Illustrated by Derek Brazell] [Paperback]  Tamarind Books

Christina Shinglerhttp://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1870516680/ref=rdr_ext_tmb (Author), Derek Brazell (Illustrator)

I have seen the following information about “Happy Hair UK”. It was published on an interesting blog – Mixed Race Family.  See below, with Elizabeth White’s permission:

Mixed Race Family  http://mixedracefamilies.blogspot.co.uk/

For global people who are mixed race, belong to a mixed race family, are starting a mixed race family or who are from the global human race and are interested in learning more about the experiences of global mixed race families.

 

Happy Hair UK

mixed-race girl's hair

Happy Hair UK’s  mission is to make every child with Afro/Mixed (Kinky to Curly) hair feel happy with their hair. To make Afro/Mixed hair manageable using natural products whilst keeping hair care to a high standard. We want to make Black/Mixed children’s hair care accessible in all areas of the UK. And if it cannot be accessed to provide tips, advice and support.
We will achieve this by hosting free events to promote and educate people about black/mixed hair care.”

I’ll be back soon with news about Jah’s hair.

Introducing Jah to our wider family ‘Down South’. The long summer holiday.

The long summer holiday is a time when children can be free from formal school learning.  If they are fortunate, they can learn about the world around them, as they visit the countryside, as they follow their interests, as they meet people and spend time in summer sunshine and in the open air.

Jah had a lot to learn about all aspects of his new life.

Before we went away, a very dear life-long friend came to visit.  Someone took a photo of her playing bubbles with Jah.  It is embarrassing to note that once again a person’s head was ‘cut off’ in a photo.  (Sorry S!)

S and JThe point about mentioning this is, that many years later this same friend reflected. “Jah is no longer attention-seeking like he was at first”.  That surprised me because I did not remember so much ‘attention-seeking’.  It is probably because I expected it.  These were days of re-adjustment for all of us, but of course especially for him. I suppose it would have been more worrying if he had been passive.

Following the discovery that Jah was still a bit confused about many things, we told him carefully about the family members we were going to visit.

D’s mother and sister lived in Surrey – quite a long way from Leicester.  We went on outings together with the Surrey cousins.  We let the children play in their gardens and enjoyed outdoor picnics.

My parents and grandmother lived in Somerset. The children enjoyed themselves very much.  My grandmother commented, ‘Jah has merry eyes.  He looks as if he might lead you a merry dance’.  We thought of those words a few years later . . . .

ScotlandOur next trip was to go camping in Scotland.  I have heard it said that many people of ethnic minorities do not travel widely in the English countryside.  I myself know of many people of Caribbean origin who truly appreciate and love visiting parts of Britain, so I am not sure how true that is.

Anyway.  We went camping in the North West Highlands of Scotland.  As far as I could see, we were the only multiracial family around.  This did not matter to us.  We all enjoyed a restful time together by the sea and in beautiful countryside.

beside the sea As we had hoped, the holiday had indeed given us time to renew our batteries, before returning to home and school and the inevitable challenges that lay ahead.