Edited by Katherine May
Elliott & Thompson (2021)Buy Book
It is impossible to pigeonhole writer Michelle Adams. She is an author who moves effortlessly between genres. Adams has published two psychological thrillers, If You Knew My Sister (published as My Sister in the United Kingdom) and Between the Lies. Her women’s fiction novel Little Wishes was named a best new romance in November 2020 by the website POPSUGAR. Recently, Adams’s nonfiction essay, “Learning To Be A Mother,” about her experience adopting her daughter, was included in The Best, Most Awful Job, an anthology that seeks to broaden the conversation on the complexities of motherhood. Her forthcoming novel Hidden Treasures also features motherhood as a main theme.
Adams worked as a cardiac physiologist before becoming a full-time writer, and she is currently studying toward a master of science in psychology. Originally from the UK, Adams now lives in Limassol, Cyprus, with her husband and their children. Katie Whittington met with Adams over Zoom to talk about writing and their shared experience as adoptive mothers.
Katie Whittington: As an adoptive mother, it’s refreshing to see your story sitting so comfortably alongside other stories of motherhood in The Best, Most Awful Job. During my experience of adopting, I found it hard to find representations in literature and the media that echoed me as a person. Did you have a similar experience?
Michelle Adams: I was drawn to finding success stories. Hearing that somebody had successfully adopted made the process feel real. I thought, “Okay, if other people can adopt, one day it will be our turn.” I also wanted to know how birth mums felt, and reading gave me an understanding that adoption doesn’t always happen because birth parents don’t or can’t care for their children. I was keen to hear these stories, but at the same time I didn’t feel that they totally represented who I was. A lot of the stories were from a Christian perspective and many originated from America, where the process is different. But in a period when success felt like a long way off, hearing those stories gave me hope that one day it would be possible for us to become parents by adoption.
I also read a lot of the books behind the theory and psychology of adoption. Some of them were positive and some were negative. I think you have to digest all that with a pinch of salt and take what you need. What I found most rewarding at the time was following Rachel Hollis, a food blogger. She tried to adopt for years. She was very open when talking about the adoption process, and I found following her journey reassuring.
KW: You mention in your essay about being proud and open when talking about your daughter’s adoption. What are your thoughts on getting the balance right between being completely open but not feeling as though you are always putting a label on it?
MA: My daughter is four, and she knows what the word adoption means. She knows that she grew in someone else’s tummy, and if people are positively asking us about adoption, then we’re super open. But there’s a balance to be made that creates that sense of openness. It includes giving your child the ability to look and say my parents are okay with this so that means I can be okay with this, but also letting them know they can turn to somebody else and tell them to get lost if they are asking things that are inappropriate. It’s empowering them, giving them a framework with which they know adoption is fine, but it doesn’t mean that it’s fair game for anyone to just pry.
KW: What is so wonderful about the book The Best, Most Awful Job is the diversity of voices all speaking about motherhood. With more experiences of adoption shared and more inclusive books like this one, do you think adoptive mothers will start to find their experiences normalized?
MA: Yes. As a mother, all the stories really resonated with me. It makes you realize that it doesn’t matter how you arrive at motherhood or exactly what your everyday experience of motherhood is, we’re going through the same things. For example, we are learning to navigate our partners, and they us, in a new role; we are learning how to survive on less sleep and deal with the weaknesses we never knew we had; we are learning we have reserves of love, even though sometimes we’d just like to pull the quilt over our heads and not deal with another wake up or spit up. Perhaps most of all being a mother is everything and nothing like what you thought it would be because the children we imagined in our heads before motherhood weren’t real. They came with none of the challenges that our real children come with. In this way, adoption is no different than having a child through birth or surrogacy or becoming a stepparent through marriage.
KW: Your essay poses a question that really resonated with me: “What if I didn’t turn out to be the mother she needed?” Do you think adoptive mothers feel a heightened pressure in that sense?
MA: There’s probably a greater chance that we ask ourselves, “Am I going to get this right, am I going to do the right job, am I going to be able to talk about this in the way that she needs?” Or, “Will she resent me, because I’m not her birth mother?” So there’s an added level of consideration that you have to take into account as you raise your child. But I don’t think it’s something I feel on a regular basis any more so than any other mother who’s raising their child with the same hopes and fears that they get it right. The fears melt away in those moments when your child comes to you for comfort and you suddenly think, “I’ve got this. I can do this, today at least!” Like I said in the essay, the moment I realized we’d really bonded was when she’d had her surgery for her cleft palate. We’d been waiting for the surgery to be finished for a few hours. When I arrived at her bed, she was rolling around and crying, and I scooped her up and said, “I’m here now,” and she calmed down straight away. It was a feeling of “I’m where I’m supposed to be, we’ve drawn a line under the adoption, and I’m just her mum now.”
KW: How did you come to be a full-time writer from a background in science and cardiology?
MA: My path into writing was a long one. Being an author was always something I wanted, but for a long time I did nothing about it. I toyed with the idea of starting a book, and I often had notes stuffed in my pockets with plot ideas and character profiles. Then one day I realized that if ever I wanted to write a book, first I needed to write a chapter. I had taken a trip to Poland and visited Auschwitz, and that left a big impression on me. When I returned home I came up with a plot inspired by my trip, a medical thriller, and started writing. I got a lot of rejections for that manuscript. After a time I published it on a self-publishing platform. Having my book out there in the world inspired me to keep writing. My Sister was my seventh manuscript. I felt it was better than any other book I had written. Fortunately for me when I approached an agent that time, I was able to secure representation and a publishing deal.
KW: I’m intrigued to know why you are drawn to writing psychological thrillers. Is your current program of study toward a masters degree in psychology inspired by your writing in this genre?
MA: After the medical thriller, I wrote some more thrillers, a sci-fi horror story, and a dystopian series. I was always drawn to story rather than genre, so I wrote in whatever genre I thought best told a story. No doubt that was also influenced by whatever I was consuming at the time—be it books, movies, or crime documentaries. Thriller is one of my favorite genres, and I’m so glad my first publishing experience was in that genre because I met some wonderful people. I think my Master in Psychology is inspired by the fact that I have always been intrigued by the human experience. What makes people behave as they do? And why do we sometimes behave in ways that seem contradictory to our needs, and yet our actions serve us on an emotional level? I adore writing and will always be working on a book. But I also miss the contact with people in a clinical setting, and 2020 gave me a chance to wonder whether there wasn’t something else in my future that I’d like to do. I think both careers to date, as a scientist and as a writer, have driven me to study psychology. I want to help my characters resolve their unfinished stories on the page and translate that into real life too.
KW: How does motherhood and its themes figure into your fiction writing?
MA: Motherhood appears in every book I write. It may be a character’s relationship with their mother, or a character as a mother herself. Sometimes it plays just a small part, but in the book I’m writing at the moment it is at the forefront and touches upon the idea of abandonment. Adopting provides an insight into this. Without our children first being relinquished by their birth parents, the adoption that changed our lives could never take place. As I wrote in The Best, Most Awful Job, the decision that my daughter’s birth mother made, perhaps the hardest she had or will ever make, brought me the most happiness, and that is a strange balance to accept. Perhaps it is easy to look at a mother who cannot care for her child and judge her harshly, but I choose to thank her. Without her courage to trust in an unknown future and a person she had never met, I would not be my daughter’s mother. My next book looks at the possible life behind a decision such as that and the factors that could drive a mother into that choice.