Heartlines – The Year I Met My Other Mother is a new memoir exploring the adoption legacy of Robin and Susannah, mother and daughter separated at birth – at Robin’s choosing – who meet again half a century later – at Susannah’s choosing.
Their reunion occurring fairly recently, and rapidly, once locating each other in Melbourne during 2014. Robin is 72 and Susannah 50.
Unlike most adoption memoirs Heartlines is a duet where mother and daughter, or more accurately, daughter and mother (as Susannah is the principal driver, the ‘hare’ in this mutually agreed ‘tortoise/hare’ relationship), co-author their journey of finding and getting to know each other after fifty years of separation.
The co-authoring provides each with their own space to tell their part of their story – and equally importantly, the right of instant reply as they deal with the markers of connection, disconnection and reconnection that shape their lives.
Their courage and honesty takes them beyond the factual details of events to unravel the mystery and deeper tensions of when a mother gives away her child and the child has to live with the consequences, forever. Hard truths, fragile emotions and raw vulnerability ebb and flow as we step into the present with them to explore their fractured past.
What harder words can an adopted person have to hear than they were never wanted at birth and willingly given away? And how hard to hear these words from the mother who didn’t want you and who gave you away?
And what more sobering words can a mother have to face than when her child, grown into a mature woman, tells her, it hurt, it deeply hurt me when you abandoned me?
Their mutual willingness to engage with their unspoken past is undoubtedly one of the strengths of Heartlines and a lesson to others who remain immobilised by avoidance or captive to denial; fearful of engaging old wounds.
Courage and reconnection do bring rewards.
Together Robin and Susannah confront their uncertainty and vulnerabilities, come to terms with primordial loss, expose deep hurt, release bottled anger and repressed grief. They laugh and cry, talk and email (repeatedly), and begin to care and support one another as they step towards greater understanding, acceptance and emerging forgiveness.
Adoption does turn significant others into significant strangers.
It takes courage to face up to the realities of abandonment and what transpired in the missing years. Doing so is never easy. Time needs to find its place. Timing is when one is ready to embrace the unknown.
Twenty-five years before Robin had sought contact – following changes to Victorian adoption legislation – with Susannah through the applicable government agency. At that time Susannah was happy and comfortable with her adoptive family, declining the request through a polite letter and they didn’t meet.
She continued with her life – completing university, marrying Oskar, living overseas, having two children, establishing her career as a publisher, setting up home in Melbourne. A series of losses, however – the death of Gerie, her adoptive mother, who succumbs to cancer; the death of her son-in-law and an illness to Emma, her daughter – all combine to create the opening to explore her pivotal first loss.
It’s uncanny how often personal loss is the catalyst in adoption. Loss tends to be the common spark igniting action; to fill a void with something that is perceived to be missing or when someone is no longer there. Loss has a way of awakening deeply repressed emotions that have lain dormant for decades. For Susannah, her profound loss of her mum dissolves the long-standing walls of inner resistance allowing her heartlines to reconnect with her bloodline.
Robin’s life unfolded too – marrying Tim, Susannah’s father; two further daughters, Anna and Matilda gracing the world; a divorce; remarrying and the loss of Andy, her second husband; a new relationship with Graeme and a fourth daughter, Marian; raising three daughters as a single parent; becoming a born-again Christian; and continuing to wonder about her first born.
As Robin and Susannah make contact we are given a seat at their computers, as emails grow in number and frequency between them. Once they meet, we sit in their own homes over cups of tea or crossword puzzles, two calming influences when emotions begin to rise or spiral out of control. We are taken on walks to digest new personal information; and out into storms to participate in rituals of forgiveness.
Inevitably, they recognise they are a duet no longer. This is more than mother and daughter – there is a wider family network on the outside peering in, or needing to be told. Fathers, siblings, half siblings, cousins … the list of first family grows exponentially and with it stresses appear on the home front as Susannah, in the words of Oskar, her husband, appears ‘kidnapped’ by the process of uncovering her newly discovered first family, including meeting Tim, her birth father.
Heartlines reminds us the permanency of adoption orders and the sanctions imposed through social norms do not erase bloodlines. Adopted people, through no choice of their own, are bequeathed two families and the pull to know where they come from – at a time that is right – is a valid and rightful quest in need of respect and the space to unfold.
Significantly, Heartlines dispels the myth that adopted people have to have unhappy childhoods and poor adoptive parenting to be interested in searching for, and re-establishing contact, with their first families. Many an adopted person knows this is an inversion of the truth, as the pull of first family – to know where you came from and explore those connections – is as natural as the sun rising to start a new day, each and every day.
Susannah – like many adopted people, myself included – acknowledges the unconditional love, countless opportunities and endless support she received from her adopted mum and dad, factors making the action of telling Brian, her adoptive father, about her new and developing relationship with Robin, all the more difficult. The sense of loyalty to her adopted parents is as strong for Susannah as it is for many an adopted person.
What is grossly unfair in these situations is the expectation, whether imposed from within or without, that adopted people have to choose between, or negate, one set of parents in favour of the other, as framed by closed adoption orders. As a legal construct adoption erases one identity and family and creates new ones for the adopted person. In reality this is a narrow, selective and a half truth. Nature through biology, even when put aside by legal process, can never be erased and the adopted person’s experience of good adoptive parenting should never be held as a ransom to dissuade or invalidate their seeking to reconnect with first kin.
Heartlines is recommended for all parties involved in adoption search and reunion – adopted people, birth parents, adoptive parents and extended family on both sides – as it respectfully engages with difficult events and the myriad of emotions that emerge and flow from exploring the fragility and strengths of human relationships, particularly the indivisible bond between mothers and their children.
We wish Susannah and Robin, and their expanded families, good luck for the future as their reconnected lives continue to unfold.
Heartlines – The Year I Met My Other Mother written by Susannah McFarlane and Robin Leuba is published by Vintage Books, Australia in 2016 and available in print or Kindle.