This blog has taken some time to write. Some months in fact. I wanted to get the words exactly right. I hope you'll understand why.
We met Mary in a contact centre. A Council building used to facilitate meetings between children in care and their birth families.
The room was laid out in the style of a sitting room. Sofas in bright colours, slightly worn. Children's toys arranged in boxes against one wall, some strewn around the floor under a coffee table at one end of the room. The remnants of an earlier meeting.
Anonymous. Neutral. And yet poignant. The children's toys a constant reminder of the reason we were there.
After matching with one of our children we were asked by their social worker whether we would consent to a meeting with their birth mother.
She had been told about us. Knew her child was about to be adopted by a male couple. Had exercised her right to ask to meet us.
The social worker was at pains to stress that we did not have to accede to her request. We could, if we wished, remain completely anonymous. Described and defined purely by the redacted information in Court documents, the sanitised contact letters we had already agreed to write on behalf of our child annually.
We pondered the request. The easy route would be to decline the meeting. We could continue creating our family without exposing ourselves to what must inevitably be a difficult meeting.
We both felt, however, that to refuse the meeting would be to decline a unique opportunity. A chance to meet our child's birth mother in person. The ability to, one day, describe the person who would undoubtedly recede into the shadows of our child's memory as time progressed.
We also felt an obligation.
By many measures the woman we would be meeting had abrogated the right to make any demands about her child.
She had, through her own, premeditated actions caused this situation to come about.
And yet we would be taking forward the care of the child she had borne. Her creation. Her genetics would create our family. She, we felt, had the right to meet the people whom would be taking her child's story forward.
So we said yes.
And we found ourselves on a wet, autumn afternoon sitting in the sanitised surroundings of the contact centre. Waiting nervously as our child's birth mother paced outside the window, smoking a final cigarette before entering the building.
Entering, Mary's** nerves were apparent. Her hands shook slightly as she sat down.
A slight woman with light brown hair. Someone who appeared older than her actual age. The ravages of lifestyle choices already affecting her.
She wore minimal make up. Her hair was tied back tidily. She had made the very best of her appearance for what, for her, was clearly a very stressful and important meeting.
Accompanied by our social worker, we had agreed J should lead the conversation. His work leads him to talk to people in very stressful, tragic, personal circumstances on a regular basis. He could read people well. Recognise their angst. Manage a conversation under pressure.
For once I was going to shut up and let him lead the conversation.
Quietly. Gently. J introduced us and asked Mary what we could tell her.
Mary asked us a little about ourselves. About our circumstances. Our families. Our backgrounds. Our plans for looking after her child. J answered calmly. Kindly. Guardedly.
While Mary's questioning was polite it was also pointed. Wiley even. When an answer didn't illicit the detail she wanted she would ask the same thing in a slightly different way. Or she would ask another question and then come back to the query to which she had received incomplete information.
What were our surnames? Oh yes, she had forgotten she had asked that before. Where did we live again? Not the address, just the area. What did we do? What kind of doctor was J? Where did he work? She might know someone there?
Each time J very calmly answered her question without giving her the information she was really seeking. We had been warned by the social workers to be guarded with our responses and we now understood why.
The slightest slip. The merest chink in our resolve would be exploited. Information gathered. Harvested and stored for who knew what future use.
The conversation turned through 180 degrees. From us, to Mary. Her hopes for her child. For a future from which she would necessarily be excluded.
Her comments were thoughtful. Incisive. She had a self awareness that astounded us both.
She blamed no one but herself for her situation. She had sufficient insight to understand that her destiny was of her own making. The fact she talked openly, honestly about her circumstances and the events that led to her being in front of us that day touched us both.
Mary knew things could have been different. She knew she could have made different choices.
Most importantly, she knew those choices were hers. That impressed us immensely. Talking together afterwards we established our reactions at that point were both the same. That this gave us a positive to tell our child when, (not if, but when) in later life they asked about their mother. We could tell them she had the courage and the honesty to own up to her own fallibility.
Perhaps Mary's loquaciousness was aided by the faint smell of alcohol that lingered after each of her comments.
Her parting comments were erudite. Of some comfort. And provided some concern. "I didn't like the idea of two Dads. Don't get me wrong, I'm not homophobic. But I wanted my child to have a Mum. Now I realise they will always only have one Mum. Me. That gives me some comfort."
Mary left the room visibly distressed.
We left the room feeling immense sadness. Sadness at the waste. Waste that provided us with a family. Waste that for Mary deprived her of the same.
Sadness most of all that Mary knew that. She didn't blame society. She didn't blame the authorities. She had no animosity towards Social Services or us. She blamed herself.
In some ways that made things easier. But in very many ways it did not.
** For what I hope are very obvious reasons some of the detail of this post has been changed to ensure the anonymity of our child and their birth mother.