Judith Fleming adopted on her own. This month, she talks of her nagging fear of being “a fake mummy”.
My first full day as a mum wasn’t quite the same as most other mums’. I didn’t find myself surrounded by flowers and nipple cream with the man I love by my side. Au contraire. I was alone. I had adopted my baby boy as a single woman and after months of assessments, I finally got to bring him home.
If it was a celebration, it was a muted one. I was advised not to overwhelm my little baffled baby with too many people. So it was just him and me. In a bid to ‘do something’ we went into town on a bus. I inexpertly manoeuvred the buggy onto the bus alongside another buggy. The other buggy’s mum smiled at me conspiratorially. I realised I was in a new club.
“How many teeth?” she asked.
“How many teeth?”
Was this how my conversations would go from now on? I was less than 24 hours into motherhood. I knew my son’s name and what he had for breakfast. After that, I had nothing.
“Five,” I guessed.
She seemed shocked at this impossibility. OK, so I’d got the number wrong. I could correct myself. But higher or lower?
“Yes, five,” I asserted with fake confidence.
And then I dinged the bell, backed out the bus and walked the rest of the way.
I felt a fraud. Passing myself off as my baby’s mum. I wasn’t. I was just a woman he’d met a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t even know how many teeth he had. I hadn’t conceived him, carried him, given birth to him, breastfed him, delighted in him when his first, second and maybe third tooth came through. I was no one. Just a woman pushing a buggy. A fake mummy.
The days passed. The weeks. I watched him take his first steps. I stayed up through the night with him when he couldn’t sleep. I was the one he threw up over when he was ill. But the feeling persisted. Fake mummy.
I have no doubt that part of my anxiety was personal. I’m sure some adoptive mums feel like mums straight away. I’m sure some birth mums don’t. I think I would always have fallen into the latter category. Things don’t come that easily to me. This was one of those things.
“There are screeds of things I don’t know about mothering. But even I can see that’s true for every mother. You only ever know how to parent your own child.”
But this seems to be one of the taboos of adopting. When you consider the hours of assessment, of discussing how I would parent, of being tested, poked and prodded to see if I would pass muster, this imposter syndrome was never discussed. Nobody ever said, do you think you’ll find it hard that your child isn’t your child?
When I met people who had already adopted, it never came up. And if I’m honest, since adopting, I haven’t really discussed it with anyone. But nobody, literally nobody has ever made me feel less of a mum because I’m an adoptive mum. Not even accidentally. I’m really surprised by that. It’s like I’m the only one who can see what is plainly obvious. I’m a fake mummy.
It’s not that I found the fakeness a surprise. It’s always seemed to me that if you were to draw a Venn diagram of birth parenting and adoptive parenting you would have two circles almost overlaid, but not quite.
There are things unique to each experience. There are screeds of things I don’t know about mothering. But even I can see that’s true for every mother. You only ever know how to parent your own child. Every child is so different. You can tell I have spent quite a lot of time intellectualising the problem. Trying to argue myself into believing a lie.
And I should say that at no point did any of this debate mean I loved my boy less. I adored him from the moment I clapped eyes on him. From before that, even. From the moment I saw a sketchy photo of him months before I would meet him. Yes, I’m aware that sounds exactly like a birth experience.
I started to think that maybe I would simply have to accept that motherhood, for me, would always feel a little pretend. But then something happened. As I watched my boy playing in the garden one day, he spotted me and toddled over. He sought me out. Demanded things from me. Demanded everything from me. Demanded all I had to give. And I realised. He wasn’t pretending. He was being my real son. Because real or fake, I was the only mummy he had.
I looked at my son, being my son, climbing onto me and poking me in the face. And suddenly, in that moment I realised I didn’t need to force this relationship to be real. It was real. It will probably be the most intense relationship of my life. Real mummy.
Read previous instalments of Judith’s column here.
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Judith is one of those actor/writer/comedians you get nowadays.