Taboos: Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers post by Salma Altabari

Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers raises issues about adoption that have become more relevant in today’s world than they were twenty-four years ago – when the book was first published. She draws out the social taboo around adoption in the sixties, where it was widely believed not to be “like having your own child” (23).

Charlize Theron with her son, Jackson.

Through both the adoptive and birth mothers’ points of view there is a close-up on the roots of maternal instincts; feelings of maternity do not seem to be exclusive to the woman who gives birth. The adoptive mother yearns for a child and spends “six months trying not to look at swings nor the front of supermarket trolleys, not to think this kid [she’s] wanted could be five.” (14) The adoptive mother is adamant that “all this umbilical knot business is nonsense” (23). When she finally adopts a child, she argues quite sternly that the baby is hers: “she’s my child, I have told her stories wept at her losses, laughed at her pleasures, she is min.” (23)
This raises the question of who is the ‘real’ mother? Is it the one who gives birth, or the one who shares the laughs and losses of the child? The child in the narrative seems to be concerned with this question from an early age and doesn’t seems to fully accept any single woman as her true mother.
On the other hand, the birth mother demonstrates anti-maternal instincts – despite giving birth – she thinks to “suffocate her with a feather pillow” (13). However, the fact that she gives her child away shows that she is concerned for her wellbeing, knowing that she’ll never give her a good home, she makes a selfless decision and decides “it’s best for her,” (17).
Jessica Coleman, a teen who stabbed her baby in the chest.


9 responses to this post.

  1. I really was affected by the last chapter The Meeting Dream, particularly the contrast Kay draws between the hyper imagination the daughter has about meeting her birth mother and the importance she places on meeting her although she has grown up with her adoptive mother for 26 years. She excitedly asks her birth mother if it is how she imagined it, supposedly expecting to hear expectations much like her own; yet she says ‘I never imagined it.’ (33) Kay concludes this awkward, anti-climatic and somewhat sad meeting with ‘she is too many imaginings to be flesh and blood’ (33) which could signify the years the daughter has spent wishing her mother was around and her subsequent expectations can never be outweighed by her mother as she is now, even if she was living up to her standards. This also seems to be awkward because the daughter has obviously felt for some time that the birth mother ‘owes’ her a lot more in absence of a 26 year relationship, but these expectations are met with disappointment – the mother does not express remorse or even affection.


  2. Posted by Kirsty on November 24, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    I think something I found I appreciated a lot in The Adoption Papers is how supportive the adoptive mother tries to be; I can’t imagine that all adoptive mothers would be particularly open to the idea of a child’s want to meet their birth mother, but she tries to be as understanding as she can be, she doesn’t interfere. She appreciates it as something her daughter needs to do, and I actually think this is a good example where we see her maternal instinct as being quite apparent. It doesn’t really matter to her that she, the adoptive mother, doesn’t understand the need or relevance of the meet up between the daughter and the birth mother, if it’s something that her daughter feels is important, then it’s important to her too, and she’ll support her in that decision. And it’s amazing how easily that is conveyed in so few words.

    I think support vs. understanding is important to the relationship between the daughter and the adoptive mother; it comes up when the daughter is suffering due to the racist tendencies the majority of her school seem to have. The adoptive mother doesn’t understand, she’s never faced it, and it doesn’t matter to her (shown in her line “colour matters to the nutters” (#2 of Part 2), it just seems a bit strange to her that people think it does, and her daughter shouldn’t mind their nonsense), she’s capable of shrugging it off to an extent because of this, but she supports her daughter, and she shows this support by encouraging her daughter to stand up for herself however she deems necessary; “you tell your little girl to stop calling/ my little girl names and I’ll tell my little girl/to stop giving your little girl a doing”. (#2 of Part 2)


  3. Posted by Eliza on November 24, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    ‘Right away I know if she’s upset. / And vice versa. Closer than blood. / Thicker than water. Me and my daughter.’

    This rhyme in the poem ‘The Meeting Dream’ stood out to me, because rhymes are pretty rare in Kay’s poetry – if almost completely non-existent. The rhyme of ‘water’ with ‘daughter’ gives the final line a sense of finality, of conclusion, implying that what really counts has nothing to do with blood at all. The lines also have a sing-song quality to them, which indicates that they are words that have been said and repeated over and over again, reflecting a family with their own traditions and sayings developed over time.

    These lines suggesting an almost telepathic connection between mother and daughter could be directly contrasted to the imagery that the adopted daughter uses to describe the meeting with her birth mother; the mother’s hands ‘as awkward as rocks’, and her own eyes as ‘stones, washed over and over’. There is no connection between the two people, the stones stand apart and suggest a solid barrier between the two, an unresponsiveness.


  4. Posted by Lukas on November 24, 2015 at 7:13 pm

    Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers radically questions the relationship between body and identity. The text does this threefold: First we see the adoptive mother, who is a biological woman in want of becoming a mother, but unable to conceive a child; secondly the novel questions the relation between the daughter and her biological mother; and thirdly the novel shows a character who is both 100% Scottish and a person of colour as well. In this way, Adoption Papers challenges the idea of identity being tied to biology, and also creates a more post-modern idea of what a family is.


  5. I found this to be a great insight into what a mother is and how we define it. While a lot of people are close to their mothers, what is considered the norm. That said when reading this I considered whether the adoptive mother was right, should someone be giving rights just for giving birth but not raising a child? It’s a tough call to make and in comparison to other works such as We Need to Talk About Kevin query what happens when mothers don’t have the instinct and whether the children of those women would have been better with a mother that is not biologically related.


  6. Posted by Phoebe Deans on November 24, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    As well as looking at the obvious theme of motherhood and how we define it, I think it is important to consider other themes, such as race and nationality, found in Jackie Kay’s ‘The Adoption Papers’. Based on her own autobiographical experience, the poem can be seen to reflect Kay’s own personal struggles growing up as a black woman in British Society. In ‘Chapter Seven: Black Bottom’, speaking through the adopted child, Kay expresses: ‘Angela Davis is the only female person/ I’ve seen (except for a nurse on TV)/ who looks like me’ [27]. However, despite acknowledging their similarities, such as their skin colour, the girl goes on to say how she is sometimes shocked by her own reflection: ‘Do you really look like this?’ [27] The child’s existing conflict of identity highlights issues raised by Black Feminists, such as Davis herself – that black women are often oppressed and silenced by the rest of the society. Instead, children such as herself are being forced to look up to women such as Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn [26]. Feminists, such as The Black Woman Talk Collective, suggest that to prevent such issues from continuing, more black women, need to come forward, as Kay has, and vocalise their stories, thus encouraging more and more others to join them.


  7. Posted by Christie on November 24, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    I agree with Lukas’ suggestion that the book explores the relationship between body and identity, and I think that applying Judith Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’ can expand on this idea. There are multiple examples throughout the book in which characters are affected by the misconception of gender identity as innate and biological. For instance, on page 17, the adoptive mother and father arguably appear to be equally as anxious as one another to see their child: “I could tell/ he was as nervous as me”. However, the child is ill and only one parent can see her. Consequently, the adoptive mother is allowed in to see the baby and there is no evidence that the father objects to this.
    In the context of Butler’s theory, and when reading between the lines of Kay’s text, the father within this passage can be seen as an example of an individual who conforms to the performance of gender expected of him by society, and the potential oppressive nature of this performance. It may be assumed that the father’s lack of objection to not seeing his child for the first time is resultant of the commonly held idea that females hold a stronger innate parental instinct than men; he does not question that the female goes instead of him, despite his equal wish to see the child. This can be seen as his character ‘conforming’ to expected gender performances as he does not object, and sacrifices his own wish to see the child without expressing his probable devastation at this fact. Overall, the father can be seen to miss out on seeing his child for the first time, because society deems females as more deserving of this experience, and he does not object to this because men are not expected to express strong emotions. This reading can also be seen as an example of Emma Watson’s suggestion, in her ‘He for She’ speech, that men are also affected by gender inequality.


  8. Posted by Wafaa on November 25, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Whilst reading Kay’s poems I felt like I was going through a steady but unstable journey. The way she portrays adoption is very vivid and thought provoking. She raises a range of everyday issues people point at her for, the way she lives on in her life and twists it by giving a different meaning to the relationships around her and how they can affect individuals in unexpected ways. This has left me wondering about the diversity of society in the UK and its contrast from different regions.


  9. Jackie Kay struggled to identity with her adoptive parents in a physical sense and perhaps this is one of the reasons why she felt unable to fully accept her adoptive mother as her ‘real’ mother. When Kay says ‘Mammy why aren’t you and me the same colour’ it becomes apparent that she is starting to identify herself as different. Had she has more physical resemblance to her parents and her peers her experience may of been quite different.


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