Wanting to have children and deciding to have children are acts of imagination that border on egotism. To be a child is to be a particular child but to want a child is not to know who that child will be or how to grant it agency. For Margaret Reynolds these issues were unusually complex because she started grappling with them aged 45 when, single after the breakdown of a relationship, she suddenly experienced the urge to be a mother. She was longing for purpose and joy, for a “commitment that tries and shapes the self”. Yet this was not an urge to procreate. She had already undergone the menopause and wasn’t invested in reproducing her DNA.
The Wild Track is an account of Reynolds’s five-year struggle to adopt a child and of the painful pleasure of becoming the mother to a troubled six-year-old daughter. It’s an extremely moving, sometimes baggy book (I wish its editor had been more ruthless in cutting the history of ambivalent motherhood injected into its first chapter). It has many great merits, among which is its ambivalence about the British adoption system, which Reynolds portrays as serving parents and children with admirable rigour that itself results in obstacles that cannot be in the interests of the numerous children brought up in care.
It’s also an unusually thoughtful take on becoming a mother, enabled by removing babyhood and biology. Though Reynolds begins by desiring a child, the motherhood that results is a gradual, open process, in which she makes herself available as a mother and waits for Lucy to claim her. At first, they don’t hug and kiss. Reynolds just rubs her daughter’s back at night and it’s Lucy who initiates the process of kissing and cuddling, and finds her own way to calling her “Mum”. I found this moving partly because Lucy is given an autonomy that we perhaps all want our mothers to be capable of giving us and should allow to our daughters.
Reynolds is an academic and broadcaster who writes about poetry, and the literary references give the book its pulse. Most chapters have poetic epigraphs, which are all illuminating. “Speak, father, speak to your little boy”, William Blake’s “The Little Boy Lost” cries to the father who, like Reynolds’s own father, is absenting himself. The question of fatherhood is rightly raised here, given Reynolds was setting herself up as a single mother (a fact that, combined with her previous lesbian relationship, prevented her adopting internationally). There is a long literary history of foundlings – it is peculiarly convenient for children to be orphaned at the start of a story, as seen most recently in Netflix’s nation-bewitching The Queen’s Gambit – and Reynolds adopts with these stories circling around her. There’s a touching scene where she reads Anne of Green Gables to her daughter, crying alongside Marilla when she realises what Anne means to her.
If the fact of adoption has concentrated Reynolds’s mind on where agency lies, then this has led to the book’s stylistic feat: at the end there are two chapters written by her daughter Lucy. Having heard about their early months together from Reynolds, we hear about them from Lucy, learning, shockingly, that she didn’t yet know when she was driven, crying bitterly, to Reynolds’s house from the foster parents she had grown to love, that this was a permanent move. Lucy’s sections are a testament to the joy of finding home and belonging, but also a reminder that the pain of early separations is perpetual. A few days before collecting Lucy, Reynolds had to remind herself that “my happiness is her sadness”. One of the strengths of the adoption system is that it sends potential parents on courses to think through how to parent children who have trauma ready to be reignited at any moment.
If there is a plea for change in the book it’s implicit, but present nonetheless. Adoption for Reynolds was almost impossible. Many people less able to navigate or afford the process would have given up earlier. At six, Lucy was at the upper age limit for adoption and could easily have ended up permanently as a child in care. From this account, it’s clear that, even at best, it is worse to be in care than to be adopted by many of the people who don’t make it through the adoption system. Volunteering as an independent visitor in a care home, Reynolds was the only adult spending time with the children who wasn’t paid to do so; no adults lived consistently alongside them. This is better than the grim orphanages in Dickens or Brontë, or probably than the 1960s American institution recreated in The Queen’s Gambit, where the children are routinely drugged with tranquilisers. But we have not got it right, and reading Lucy’s account, the precariousness of the care system is painfully felt. It’s this that makes Reynolds’s book such a necessary contribution to the literature on motherhood, and it’s lucky that both writers are so thoughtful, and so inspiringly attentive to each other’s experience.
• Lara Feigel’s Free Woman: Life Liberation and Doris Lessing is published by Bloomsbury. The Wild Track: Adopting, Mothering, Belonging by Margaret Reynolds is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.