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Author Melina Marchetta writes a beautiful letter to her foster daughter, one year on.

“Sometimes, I wonder if you called out to me in my sleep. Told me not to give up.” Marlina Marchetta writes a beautiful letter to her daughter, B.

Dear B,

I’m not sure when you’ll read this letter. Perhaps when you’re old enough to be making decisions about your own life. But I just wanted to let you know how it’s been, our first year together. Sometimes I’ve felt like one of those American presidents – the way their first thirty days in office are evaluated. I got assessed after a month and then six months and then a year. You and I are in good hands, so it’s not that I feel judged as a mother, but I do look forward to the day when our lives aren’t part of a report to be filed away or presented in a court of law. When you’re no longer part of ‘the system’.

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I’ll probably talk about our first year often as you’re growing up, because if there’s something I’ve learned in life, it’s that our stories and histories are important. Without them being told, voids become something more dangerous. Although I’m a bit greedy and want you all to myself, I also don’t want you to spend your life wondering where you came from, whether your birth parents loved you, who you look like. I understand the importance of identity. I’ve been writing about it most my life.

For more: Claire Patterson adopted a little boy in 2011. Two years later, she gave him back.

It’s felt like a long road to this point and there have been times I thought you would never happen in my life. Before I found the good people who brought us together, I spent an entire year with another agency, feeling frustrated by their bureaucracy and having my life turned upside down by their inability to communicate. You were born by then, but it would be at least another year before we met. Sometimes, I wonder if you called out to me in my sleep. Told me not to give up. Because I did feel like giving up.

It took so much strength to begin the process again. Another year of my life, but this time such a wonderful personal and intelligent experience. I was overwhelmed with relief when I was approved. There had never been a promise of certainty, though. It could take between two weeks and two years because it was all about matching. I couldn’t picture you because I didn’t know how old you’d be. Just that you would be a girl under five. I remember after I was approved, how I used to pass the kids’ section of a department store and almost close my eyes. I didn’t want to fall in love with an ideal before the reality.

author melina marchetta
“Sometimes, I wonder if you called out to me in my sleep.” Image via istock.
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And then I got that call two months later. I didn’t expect to hear that you were only two years old. One year and eleven months to be precise. I never thought I’d find myself out there buying strollers and cots and nappies. Our agency needed to know if I was interested, despite the uncertainty of your case. But from the moment I heard your name I knew I wanted you, and I took that chance, praying that you wouldn’t be taken away from me before everything was finally legal. I didn’t want you to ever believe you weren’t worth it. That you belonged to a lesser god.

I met you in the park that first time. Do you remember? The image is there on our mantelpiece. You let me take your hand and we blew bubbles together. It’s how you and me started. One hour together. Each day that passed we were granted a little bit more time. Those three weeks of transition were hard because you were someone else’s foster child and I felt like an intruder walking into their home, waiting to take you away. Those beautiful people who gave you such a great start in life.

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Our friends and family were fantastic when I started letting them know that you would be coming into our lives. So well meaning, but their questions troubled me. You must be so fulfilled . . . This must be the happiest day of your life . . . How did it feel when she first called you Mummy?

Those three questions would niggle me constantly at first because I thought they required an answer. Not aloud, but inside my own head. For so long I knew that I never wanted anyone else’s life, but I also knew I was searching for something more in mine. Aren’t we all? Don’t we deserve just that little bit more? So the question of fulfilment consumed me. Do we spend our entire lives searching for it? Where does it come from? If a person was to die having not been fulfilled, was their life a failure? Should I have felt complete now that you came into my life?

“Should I have felt complete now that you came into my life?”

And was it the happiest day of my life when you came to live with me? So many celebrities who have children always respond to that question in the same way: that their happiest moment was when their children were born. I suppose they had a nine-month gestation period and the almost certainty that a child would come to them. I remember vividly that day you finally came to stay. By the time I drove you away permanently from the only home you had known for two years I was crying. Because I was frightened of how all this change would affect you. I was frightened of not being enough for you. I was sad for those who had taken care of you for two years, and for your birth parents, who love you regardless.

I was frightened for me because for so much of my adult life I had a place to retreat to in my home. (I was a bit frightened for Jasper the dog because he was fifteen and had gone deaf so I wasn’t really able to explain you to him. But once you started dropping food around your chair, he seemed pretty happy with the set-up.)

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And how did I feel when you first called me Mummy? You had three of us back then, not to mention the fact that you called every person who you trusted in my home ‘Mum’. So I never got caught up with that word. Down the track, you worked it out for both of us, B. The way you hold my face in both your hands sometimes and say, ‘Silly,’ with such love. Silly for putting your shoes on the wrong feet, but sillier for not realising straight away that it didn’t matter whether I was able to answer those questions.

All that mattered was the joy and sense of permanency you felt in my home. The way you instantly understood who our family was. It was two months after you came to me that the final court orders came through. That’s when I knew. That the question I could answer without hesitation wasn’t about terminology, or fulfilment or happiness, but rather what I would do to keep you. That answer was easy. I’d do anything. Everything.

author melina marchetta
“Down the track, you worked it out for both of us, B.” Image via istock.

Contemplations about whom I was and what I was supposed to feel have been part of my life forever, way before I became your mother. It’s one of the things you’ll realise growing up, B. Especially when it comes to this minefield of being a woman. That it seems to be the norm for others to weigh in on our personal decisions. So many people believe they are entitled to judge and reassess our lives. Most times the scrutiny will come from the choice or the circumstances that make us mothers or not. It may be a lazy observation from a workmate or family member, or a standard question in a job interview. Or it may even come from a stock list of questions asked when contemplating permanent foster care, such as the one I was asked with the previous agency: whether I felt like I had failed as a woman for not giving birth naturally. The word ‘failure’ stuck with me; a reminder that some see others as less valued or of less worth. Was I a child of a lesser god?

Mamamia has birthed a parenting podcast.

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I think often about how much you love Frozen and especially Elsa, who is the queen of her kingdom. What if Elsa chooses to lead her kingdom but not have children? I hope people don’t call her barren. I hope that those who are opposed to her policies don’t go around saying that ‘people who choose not to have children or remain deliberately barren are one-dimensional’, or that those who don’t have children have no idea what life’s about. Because that’s what people in this country had to say about our first female leader, B. I hope that way of thinking changes by the time you’re making decisions. That a woman can take charge in this country and not be judged by either her choice not to have children or issues to do with her fertility.

More: I’m a 25-year-old woman and I don’t get periods.

Those ignorant sentiments aren’t just spoken by politicians. I remember when the author Maeve Binchy died, a female writer had an op ed piece published in the Mirror in the UK with the title: ‘If Maeve Binchy had been a mother . . .’ In her article she asked, Do you miss out on something essential about the human condition if you eschew childbearing?’ and claimed that ‘going through the ring of fire does change you and bring about such an understanding of human nature’. Does that mean all women who are mothers have a deeper understanding of human nature? That’s a big call. I’d like to believe I’ve done a good job of showing such an understanding of human nature in my writing for the past twenty-two years – and that was way before I became your mum.

This piece can be found in an anthology published by Pan Macmillan called Mothers and Others.

It makes me remember the time when my novel Saving Francesca was released. One of the story strands was exploring the volatile relationship between Francesca and her mother. My strongest memory at the time was being interviewed for one of the mainstream newspapers. The journalist clearly loved the novel and all was going smoothly in my head until we came to the question about the relationship between Francesca and Mia. She was stunned that I wasn’t a mother. How could someone who wrote about mother–daughter dynamics so vividly not be a mother? At first I thought it was a great compliment about my writing. Except it changed the mood. All of a sudden I wasn’t a fellow mother who wrote about this universal conflict, but an imposter. Couldn’t it just have been that I was able to capture the truth of this relationship because I’m someone’s daughter? Because I’m a good observer? Because I’m a good writer? Because I belong to the human race? It comes up over and over again in the media, the idea that when one becomes a parent, they have the capacity to feel more. How many times has someone claimed to have a deeper sense of duty to save our fragile environment now that they’re parents? How many times have I watched a film claiming that a woman isn’t a woman until she’s a mother?

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That sort of sentiment is what you need to continue to challenge when you’re older, B. But for now, enjoy being a little girl. Perhaps we can thank our lesser god who brought us together. You and I were waiting for each other. I know that for certain when I see that smile of contentment in your sleep, and when you call out with joy to everyone we walk by, even if your shoes are on the wrong feet.

Love,

M

This extract from Mothers and Others, was published by Pan Macmillan this week. You can purchase this anthology here and here. Or from these alternative retailers here and here.

Melina Marchetta is an acclaimed Australian writer and teacher. She is perhaps most well known for her novels Saving Francesca and Looking For Alibrandi. You can follow Melina on twitter here.

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