My three-year-old son Callum had his first horseback ride today. He’s always been drawn to horses, and spends a large amount of his play time trying to “ride” almost anything he can straddle. So we knew he needed to ride a horse. But we were surprised to see the ease with which he rode, holding the horse’s mane in one hand and my hand in the other, as the horse (named Whinny) was led around the pasture by her owner: Callum’s birth mother, Lisa.*
Our relationship with Lisa has seen many different phases since Callum was born. Unlike other relationships we form in our adult lives, there is no template for this one. Even the terminology is unclear. We call her by her first name, referring to her as “birth mother.” Our son does the same. But for Lisa, Callum is not her “birth son.” He is her son, period. And he will always be. I don’t know how she refers to us, maybe “My son’s adoptive parents”?
For the first year of Callum’s life, she was the “Troubled Teenage Mother” and we were the “Foster Parents,” nameless, faceless conspirators in the apprehension of her newborn child. We didn’t meet her until Callum was four months old, and, although she acted friendly, there was no love lost between us. As she worked through her own personal issues, we saw very little of her until the adoption was underway. When we needed support in our application to the Aboriginal Adoptions Exceptions Committee, we met with Lisa and her extended family. At this meeting, our adoption worker encouraged me to take the opportunity for a private mom-to-mom conversation with her. I was very nervous and had no idea what to say to her, so asked if I could give her a hug. To my relief, she accepted, and became an ally in our struggle to become Callum’s legal parents.
As we go about the daily ups and downs of parenting, it is easy to forget that we are not Callum’s only family, that he does, in fact, have roots and a history beyond our own experience. Callum rarely mentions Lisa, and when he does, I detect (or perhaps imagine) a tinge of sadness to his innocent questions and remarks. My own thoughts of her have often been accompanied by a tightness in my chest, a slight feeling of apprehension, or simply fear. Fear of what, you might ask? Fear of taking on her personal problems by allowing her into our lives. Fear that she may find out where we live and come to take Callum away from us. Fear that despite his obvious attachment to me an my husband, Callum may actually come to see Lisa as his “real” mother.
When I described our openness arrangement to a friend, himself an adoptee and parent of teenagers, he expressed concern: “What happens when he becomes a teenager and decides to rebel by going to live with his birth family?” My friend had never known his birth family, and only met his birthmom briefly as an adult. He had no desire for a relationship with her, and wondered why Callum would want a relationship with his birth family. I began to wonder the same, and this further increased my fears. Then I took an attachment parenting course by Gordon Neufeld. In his description of “competing attachments,” he explains that adopted children may rebel by running to their birth parents, if the adoptive parents see the birth parents as a threat. In other words, if I show respect for Callum’s birth family, he will not see them as a rebellious refuge. If I form a healthy relationship with his birth motherin particular, his confiding in her will not be a rebellious act. I hope.
Our openness agreement stipulates occasional letters and yearly get-togethers with Lisa and several members of her extended family. These events have always been fun and relatively easy for Callum and the rest of the family, but for Lisa they have been very difficult. Because he is changing so quickly at this young age, she never knows how to interact with him each time. She is nervous and emotional, trying hard to hold back tears for most of the day. At our our last get-together she said, “I don’t want him to see me crying every time I see him!” We realized then that there was no point in their seeing each other once a year: We could either allow a relationship to emerge through more frequent contact, or we could cut off contact altogether. So we decided to step beyond the basic requirements, and agreed to meet with her a month later at her horse paddock.
From the moment we arrived, there was an easier feeling in the air. Lisa explained that she hadn’t brought a saddle for Callum, as she wasn’t sure how we would feel about having him ride at such a young age. We decided to let Callum set the pace. He had no fear of Whinny, and immediately wanted to feed her. After a while, he reached over and took the lead rope from Lisa’s hand. As he became more comfortable, he began to slowly lead the horse around the paddock, and she responded intuitively to him. When Lisa asked if he wanted to sit on Whinny, he said, “I’m not ready yet.” A few minutes later, he asked to sit on her. When my husband asked if he wanted to go for a ride, he again said, “I’m not ready yet.” After sitting still on her back for several minutes, he then said, “I’m ready togo for a ride now.” He rode for almost an hour, enjoying the gentle rhythm of the horse’s gait. He kept saying “She loves me,” and we could see that it was true. In the presence of her equine companion, Lisa was also calmer than I’ve ever seen her. Seeing Callum on the horse was very special for her, and when she said, “I never thought I would see this!” I imagined how she must have felt during her pregnancy, dreaming of the things she would do with her child. Despite not being able to parent him, she was able to realize one of those dreams.
As Whinny tired and the sun grew hotter, we invited Lisa to join us for a picnic at the local park. We were on her turf, and she was happy to show us the places she had played in as a child. She confided with us some of the difficulties in her relationship with her family, and said, “I’m so happy to be able to spend time with Callum without having to deal with that stuff, too.” She continually thanked us for agreeing to this get-together, and we made plans to meet again in another month’s time–this time with a saddle. It wasn’t until Callum was giving her his third good-bye hug that she began to cry. “I almost made it!” she said, half-laughing, as we all hugged her again.
There are many things that a birth family knows intuitively about a biological child, which adoptive parents may not be privy to. In this case, several generations of Callum’s birth family have been “horse people” so he will obviously need a horse in his life. Not being “horse people” ourselves, we might never have recognized this if we did not have a connection with his birth family.
Navigating this relationship has not been easy for any of us, but with the help of this intuitive horse – whom I sense has been instrumental in Lisa’s own healing process – I feel that we are forging a new path. My husband and I now have a genuine respect and affection for this sensitive young woman whose heart remains open despite all that she has been through. We can see clearly that she loves our son with all her heart and no sense of entitlement. And the more people who love him, all the better!
(*Birth mother's name changed for privacy.)