THE LOVE I HAVE for my three sons started before they were born.That’s the wonderful privilege of pregnancy: feeling one’s baby grow and move inside us while dreaming and wondering who this person will be. Even after all these years,I can still remember — and always will — the tender hours spent in perfect contentment with my babies: my body curled around my sleeping eldest son, breathing in that beautiful, warm baby scent.The struggles, and the shredded nipples and infections from breastfeeding my second son were real, but when those first months were over, I’ll never forget the joy we found in the happy snuggle of a feed. And my youngest son, contentedly slapping his sticky hands on my chest and playing with my hair as I cradled him in my arms. Just as well we have precious memories like these.They keep us fuelled and keep the thread of connection unbroken when things are not so rosy.
The process of falling in love with our babies — making a place in our hearts for loving a new person — sometimes hurts. The relationship we have with our children often carries an echo of our own experiences of being attached when we were little ourselves. If the memories evoked are not ones of warmth and safety but ones of fear and confusion, this can be extremely hard. Confronting these difficult memories while doing the very best we can for our children is part of the bravery of motherhood.
As a psychiatrist, my career has been devoted to helping mothers with postnatal depression and other mental illnesses, when situations of overwhelming stress, or even the ‘ghosts’ of their own childhood experiences, can get in the way of a parent’s capacity to respond sensitively to their children. Being a mum is a tough job even in the best circumstances.When the odds are stacked against a parent, it is testament to the human spirit that this person endures.
At the end of 2013, because another doctor called in sick, I became a volunteer observer with an organisation called ChilOut, inspecting living conditions and checking on the wellbeing of mums and babies in Darwin’s immigration detention centres and advocating for those people. I expected my trip to be confronting, but nothing prepared me for what I saw. The twist of fate that took me to Darwin changed my life, and those of others, forever.
The atmosphere was suffocating in what the government calls APODs (alternative places of detention), the supposedly family-friendly version of a detention centre.All had high wire fences, and one centre had a double wire fence that could be electrified, like in a high-security prison. Every mother I saw was suffering, and all the children I met were distressed.All of them.
I saw mothers sitting unresponsive to their own children, lost in their own misery. One woman, seemingly oblivious to her little girl weeping beside her, told me,“It would have been better if we were eaten by sharks” during their escape across the Indian Ocean. I saw a child aged a little over a year sitting completely alone in a sandpit. The baby’s face was blank and his dark eyes stared into space as he repeatedly flicked the handle of a plastic bucket. I couldn’t help but compare this scene with a photograph I have of my eldest son when he was the same age. My son was at the beach, smiling back at us, his blue eyes alive, as he paused his busy digging in the sand. The child in front of me was not playing. He was helpless.And he had become frozen.Taking away a parent’s hope and damaging them psychologically is just as harmful as physically separating them from their child. When a parent is overwhelmed, they become lost in just trying to survive; they cannot see their child’s needs, and their child is left alone and unprotected. It was a profoundly abnormal situation, and in the real world outside the fences, I’d recommend that these women and their children be offered intensive psychological help.
I was anguished and angry about what I had seen.What could I do as just one doctor, when all the major medical bodies were being ignored? This wasn’t about politics. There is a line in the sand regarding humane and inhumane treatment of people, and it had well and truly been crossed.
“I thought about the love [Abdul’s] mother had for him, the agonising decision she had to make to send her boys to a safer place. If I was in her position, I would want someone to look out for my children. The solution seemed simple.”
One person I met that day stuck in my mind: a 16-year-old boy called Abdul. He was an unaccompanied child whose mother had sent him to Australia to escape persecution and threats against his life. They were Hazaras, an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan who have been targeted by the Taliban and now ISIS and other terrorist groups with bomb attacks,kidnappings and murders.Abdul’s sad story was one of many I had heard that day. But there was something else about this boy. He stood up straight, and perhaps a little defiantly, when so many other people at the centre were broken, but I could tell his poise was beginning to falter. He told me he was experiencing episodes of overwhelming fear and what are the physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and that he also needed surgery for a chronic shoulder injury sustained when he was hit by a car in Kabul. Like the others in detention with him, he faced an uncertain fate and years in limbo. I could also tell by the caring and connected way he spoke about his family that he was a much-loved child. He was concerned that his mum would worry about him having surgery. I thought about the love his mother had for him, the agonising decision she had to make to send her boys to a safer place. If I was in her position, I would want someone to look out for my children.The solution seemed simple.Wouldn’t any teenage boy be better off staying with a family than being locked behind a wire fence? Maybe I could help this one lonely child.Actually, two lonely boys, because we found out Abdul had a brother,Ahad, who had arrived at the centre earlier, also as an unaccompanied minor.
Fast-forward to 2018, and I reflect on how we are now a family. This connection wasn’t something that was declared. It was something that developed over these past few years, made up of repeated interactions and treasured memories of moments that slipped away unrecorded in the day-by-day living of them.
Having these two boys in our lives has been hard work and a gut-wrenching emotional roller-coaster. Our sons had to adjust, and in the first few months, they fought with each other and their school work suffered. From the outset, I thought deeply about how the decision would affect my children, and my husband and I expected some difficulties.We had faith that things would work out, but in the interim, the anxiety and anguish were enormous. The Afghan boys have had so much to deal with, and, of course, I was also affected by their turmoil when they heard news of more terror attacks in Afghanistan, or when I witnessed their quiet grief from missing home and their mother. Sadly, we also argued. A lot. In peaceful moments of reflection,Abdul told me,“We argue about the ‘what-ifs’: what if you don’t care? What if I get sent away? What if ...?” I wish I could say to Abdul, “You’re safe now, and you can make dreams for your future like my other boys.” But we both know this isn’t true. His stay in Australia is precarious under the temporary-visa system, and Abdul could be sent back to Afghanistan, where his life remains at risk.
Ahad, who had been so sad, has begun to smile more.We cook passionfruit slice side by side in the kitchen. Rob, my husband, and Ahad work together in the garden. Ahad gently teases our youngest,Toby, for whom he has a special fondness, calling him “Tobicles”,getting a reaction of ruffled annoyance but also a smile. It is heartwarming to see the Afghan boys and my eldest sharing a pot of tea, or hear the quick-witted verbal sparring that goes on with my middle son, or the laughter and thumps on the floor that tell me Abdul and my youngest are play-wrestling yet again.
Abdul has told me he has noticed things his Australian brothers have done that show they care about him.When Abdul’s aunt and cousin came to visit, my eldest looked after them all as host, and when it was Abdul’s turn to cook dinner and he struggled with an adventurous recipe, my middle son helped him get through it, while only the other day my youngest told Abdul, “I’m so glad you’re here.We have such great adventures with you.”
The most compelling human drive is for connection.The shelter and protection of a parent’s presence are more necessary for the survival of a baby than anything else. It’s this unbreakable thread of connection between a child and their closest carers that’s so fundamental to their development.This need for connection and love continues for us throughout our lives and allows our survival in the face of all odds.When I first met Abdul and Ahad, it was kindness, moral conviction and even pity that made me want to do something. But mere kindness would not have survived what we have been through.What we needed and what has grown is love; the courageous, enduring love of family.
Unbreakable Threads, by Emma Adams (Allen & Unwin), $33, is out August 29. For more information on child refugee advocacy group ChilOut, visit chilout.org . ■