Family | Great Britain

“My mother had about 12 jobs”

Between religious fanaticism and sibling love: British author Kit de Waal describes her childhood of extremes – and talks about how it shaped her relationship with her adopted children
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When my dad came to England from Saint Kitts, he had a five-year plan. He grew up in poverty himself and came to England to make some money and go home. That’s what most immigrants intend to do. But instead of returning to Saint Kitts, he met an Irish Catholic who didn’t take birth control. Five years later, he had five children and was stuck in Birmingham. Until he died, he spoke about going home. For him, “home” was never Birmingham or the house in which we lived. Home was the Caribbean.

When my mother met my father, she fell in love with Harry Belafonte, with Sidney Poitier. She fell in love with every black man she’d ever seen and fancied. My dad didn’t love her. He was with her. That made their lives unhappy and the environment in which me and my siblings grew up in very difficult.

My father didn’t spend any money whatsoever on his children, he saved every single penny to return to the Caribbean one day. He was a beautiful man – and he loved himself. He didn’t care to buy food or repair the house, but he used to wear beautiful mohair suits, and a red silk tie with matching handkerchiefs, cufflinks and silk socks.

„In winter, we only had one warm room in the house: the room where my dad sat to watch films“

In winter, we only had one warm room in the house: the room where my dad sat to watch films. We’d all sit around him in absolute silence. “The Maltese Falcon”, “Casablanca”, all these old classics. If there was a break, he would turn around and ask one of us: “What is the director’s name?”, and you had to know the answer. It was a great learning environment, although slightly tyrannical.  

At the same time, my mother had about 12 jobs, to feed us and clothe us. On top of it all, she had severe mental health problems. One time she bought Lederhosen for my brother in the middle of a hot summer. For herself, she bought a hat with a fur tail and a mouth organ. She would just sit on the back porch during the entire summer and tried to play a song called “Beautiful Dreamer”, while we were very hungry and didn’t have enough to eat.

To us, it was normal: She’d have a new bizarre thing every six months. My siblings and me, the five of us, became a tribe against our parents. I only survived my childhood because of my brothers and sisters.

Both of my parents had small horizons. They didn’t want to know about new ideas or politics. But the quirk of fate is that they had five intelligent children. We were inquisitive and clever, so we just made fun of them. That was our sport basically. It sounds cruel now, but laughing and finding joy in their odd behavior and our poverty was how we dealt with it. Our aim was to make each other laugh.

„It was a disastrous and happy childhood at the same time“

I am sure that if we’d come to the attention of Social Services they would have taken us into care. But somehow we managed to fly under the radar. It was a disastrous and happy childhood at the same time.

From the time I was six, my mother became a Jehovah's witness – and everything changed for the worse. The Jehovah’s Witness religion is probably the most joyless religion there is. There are no birthdays, no Christmas, no bonfire night, no Easter, no Mother’s Day. There’s nothing. But the most difficult part about growing up with an extremely thorough Jehovah’s Witness disciple as a mother was the long list of all the things that you weren’t supposed to do. But I did them all nevertheless.

I had a fag when I was 10. I met up with boys. I stole money out of my dad’s trouser pocket, I swore like a trooper. And because of all all my sins, I was absolutely sure that I would never get old enough to see adulthood, never have children myself. I was absolutely sure I will die at any moment, as soon as God brings the Armageddon upon us.

„I left home when I was 16. But it took a long time, until the fear left me“

I left home when I was 16. But it took a long time, until the fear left me. I still remember vividly, when I was about 22, I was in the city center of Birmingham and it suddenly went dark on the middle of the day. It was only a hail storm, but in that moment, I was hundred percent sure that the moment was upon us, that death was waiting for me.

My three sisters and I got disfellowships from the Jehovah’s witnesses, because we turned our backs to the religion. This meant our mother wouldn't speak to us anymore. If you are disfellowshipped, you are shunned. It is a very punitive religion. As a result, my mother never spoke to her grandchildren. That’s something I never really got over. Growing up in such a religious structure affects you psychologically for the rest of your life. 

„Today, I’ve got two adopted children whose grandmother doesn’t know them“

Today, I’ve got two adopted children whose grandmother doesn’t know them. I went through the adoption process twice, because I can’t have my own children. When I adopted, at first it was all about me. I was so overjoyed, I just had to love my children.

As I got older, you realize how much of yourself is unimportant. Your needs are so unimportant compared to their needs. I grew as a parent. But to begin with, I was completely selfish. I wanted children to love. I didn't think about children loving me. All my writing is about family. But I very rarely speak about my children, because that's their history, that’s their business. However, I wrote a piece of flash fiction, called “Look how I love you”:

Look how I love you

Look how I open my womb for the social worker as she nibbles on affordable biscuits in milk and white chocolate, individually foil wrapped on my best plate.

Look how I smile at other people's children.

Look how I wait.

Look how I imagine you thumb sucking on a single bed in a coastal town dreaming of someone to catch you.

I will bring you Bambi soft and brown, who will disintegrate from relentless hogging when you are 14 and discover your mobile phone.

I see you in a Northern Town in a terrace house too close to a hissing fire, wearing new shoes I have brought you for your first steps in a carpetless room.

I will buy you everlasting Nike trainers before you need them, before you ask.

I will drown you both in the things we never hoped to have.

Look how we waited to love.

As told to Gundula Haage during the British Council Berlin literature seminar “Class and Contemporary UK Writing” (March 2023)