'It's about commitment': mothering without a biological bond

Clare Rowe with Maggie-Rose 11- white top, Bridgette 10-blue dress, Gracie 8-spotted dress and biological daughter ...
Clare Rowe with Maggie-Rose 11- white top, Bridgette 10-blue dress, Gracie 8-spotted dress and biological daughter Lucinda 8 weeks. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Blood isn't always thicker than water when it comes to motherhood. Meet three women who made a conscious choice to mother children to whom they didn't give birth.

STEPMUM

Clare Rowe has three stepdaughters aged nine, 10 and 11, and recently gave birth to her own daughter.

"I was 27 when I met [my husband]. On our second date, he told me he had three kids under five. I was like, 'Whoa, that's a lot!' To some degree it was confronting, but I also said, 'Well how do you feel about having more?', because that was a deal breaker for me. He had to consider how he felt about more kids and I had to consider how I felt about three kids.

"We were together for six months before I met his girls. I was incredibly nervous, I was shaking under the table. By that stage, I was in too deep emotionally [with him]. I put this pressure on myself that if the girls don't like me, it could end this. It's an extra three people that have to love me, not just my partner

"It helped that they were quite young. At that age, if you treat kids right, they love you. Six years later, we're married and we have just had our own daughter, Georgia. The girls are with us five nights each fortnight. They've grown up with me."

The girls very much have a mother, and that's their mother. I've made a conscious decision that I'm not trying to add to, or compete with, that. I'm going to give them something completely different. I'm trying to be a role model and a friend. 

"It's a unique role, because mothering is the hardest job in the world. But it's so worth it if you get that complete unconditional biological love and bond. With step-parenting, you do all the hard work but you don't necessarily get the pay-off at the end. It can really feel like a thankless job. I'm up with them when they're vomiting in the middle of the night, I'm packing lunches, driving them to school. But they're always going to run right past you and leap into their dad's or mum's arms. 

"I've had to build the relationship up from nothing. Our relationship is quite conditional, because we don't have a biological bond that will keep us together through anything. It has to be worked on, it has to be topped up a bit more than the parent/child relationship does. I try to have individual time with each of them. If you spend an hour, it goes a long way.

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"I do feel sometimes I've got to work a little bit harder [than a biological mother]. In the first few years, I felt that if I pushed too hard, if I nagged too hard, they wouldn't like me. I have felt less insecure as time goes by. It would take a lot now to break that bond, for them to turn around and reject me. 

We had a wonderful holiday in Fiji as a couple, and then we went back as a family and we all got gastro. I was up with them all vomiting, thinking, 'This is hell, this is not what I had in mind, I want out.' There was one over the bath, one over the sink, one over the toilet vomiting. Welcome to reality, it wasn't cocktails by the pool. 

"We never use the word stepmum. Even though we're married, I'm still Clare. The girls leave me notes saying: 'I don't know why the fairytales always have evil stepmums, because you're not evil, you're really nice'."

ADOPTIVE MUM

Sue Brierley and her husband John adopted Saroo from India when he was seven.

Sue Brierley and Saroo, who have had their story made into the movie Lion.

Sue Brierley and Saroo, who have had their story made into the movie Lion. Photo: Edwina Pickles

"From the age of 12, I knew I wanted to adopt rather than have my own children. I was living a fairly stressful home life and was also becoming more aware of global problems like famine. Then I had a vision of me with a dark-brown child by my side. That seemed to confirm and validate my view.  

"When I met John at 16, I was quite upfront about the fact that I didn't want to have children. I was quite fortunate that he felt the same. We weren't hippies, but we were global in our outlook, 'be kind to the earth' in our thinking. "We married at 17 and, at 21, we started to explore the option of adopting overseas. The law said adoption was for infertile couples. We had no choice but to swallow it and accept that was just how it was. Sixteen years later, it came to my notice that the law had changed.

We applied and they sent our file off very quickly. Seven months later, Saroo came home to us. It was just a window in time; we went in the back door before the bureaucracy could mess up the system.

"I was elated [when I met Saroo]. He was such a darling little boy with those big brown eyes. I felt remarkably calm because I didn't want to frighten him. There was no use squealing. I was right into being a professional mother. "I've taken mothering very seriously. It wasn't just something that happened to me, it was such a longed-for thing. My actions have always been about the greater good of the process of being a mother, rather than accidentally falling pregnant, or having a baby because all your friends are.

"The bad thing about [being an adoptive mother] is everyone thinks they've got a say in your decision, how you can become a parent. I'm quite resentful of that. I think you should be as free to adopt a child as you are to give birth to a child, to have fertility treatment, to have an abortion. There should be freedom, not a bureaucratic process imposed on people.

"I found the process of adopting very demeaning. Some of the things we had to go through, no parent should have to go through. I found it insulting that we had to declare our income for donkey's years. You had to show your house, how clean you live, your family is talked to, your doctor has to say you're of sound mind. The level of interrogation was offensive to me.

"I'm just as good a parent [as a biological parent]. I was brought up as a birth child and the parenting I gave my kids [the Brierleys adopted another boy, Mantosh, from India] was superior to the parenting I received. It's about commitment – I really feel I'm equal to any other parent, and I'm better than a lot of parents who are bad parents.

"It doesn't worry me in the least [that my sons wanted to look for their birth mothers]. Those families gave me my children. I'm thankful. Look at what I've got – two very different sons. That was an absolute miracle. "Every day is my reality. I couldn't have wished for anything different." 

FOSTER MUM

Jenny Araujo and her husband Freddy fostered Yuri when he was five months old. 

Jenny and Yuri.

Jenny and Yuri. Photo: Supplied

"We came to Australia from Venezuela in 2000 to have a better future for my family. Here in Australia, you can see your child playing freely on the beach. There are no worries someone is going to kill them or you.

"We always wanted to adopt a child, regardless of whether we had [our own] child or not. We wanted to give an opportunity to someone else to have a home, a place to grow up and be happy. We wanted to adopt from Chile or Colombia, because they have a similar cultural background to Venezuela. Because all my family is in Venezuela, I wanted to have my roots [here], to have someone to take care of and share our life with.

'"During the adoption training process one facilitator said if you really want to have a child, you can foster and then eventually you can adopt. We began the process to foster through Barnardos Australia, but then my mum got really sick and we had to fly back to Venezuela. Mum passed away. It was really difficult – my mum always wanted to have a grandchild from my side of the family. 

Not long after we got back to Australia, I got a call saying, 'We've got a beautiful little four-month-old boy'. It was amazing to know we were going to have this little baby. I think it was a blessing from my mum. Sometimes a soul has to go for another one to come. 

"It was very unusual to get a foster child so young. We thought we were going to have a three-year-old child. We were not expecting to have so little a boy with us. It was a miracle. "When you have your own child, you don't know how it is going to come, if it will have a disability or something. For us, it didn't matter [how Yuri came], we were going to love this child. 

"That day we met Yuri, we fell in love with him. I don't know what biological mums feel when they give birth, but my love for that little boy – I cannot explain how big it is. It's amazing how much you can love a baby even though it's not your own blood. The love I feel for him, it's too much. I'm very protective. 

"Yuri was removed from his parents [by DOCS] when his mother was in hospital and he went into respite foster care. His foster mum trained him very well to sleep, so she got the hard part! "Yuri knows a bit about who and why: we explain, we tell him a story about him and how we met him. He asks, 'Why was I with them and then with you? Why wasn't I in your tummy?' We're happy to answer the questions according to his age. We see his step-siblings.

"We're still deciding if we'll foster another child. You don't know what love is until you have a child. The experience of having to care, put someone before yourself, to give love, it's amazing to have that opportunity. God gave us a little boy to be able to raise him." 

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