Health: A love less ordinary

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When Edwina Nutman was 16 her doctor gave her some shattering news - she would never be able to have a baby. "I just looked at him and said: ‘You’re a bloody liar’."

Today, nearly 40 years later, she still recalls that moment, when she was told she had been born without a womb.

"It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him - I could accept I had no womb," she says. "It was the way he told me I would never have a family of my own. Because even at that moment I knew in my heart that I would have children, one day. I knew that being a mum was what I was meant to do."

Nutman, 53, is too busy these days bringing up her adopted children - daughter, Lauren, 15, and her three sons, George, 13, Stuart, 10 and Jackie, four - to dwell too much on that doctor’s insensitivity.

All four were adopted as babies by Nutman and her husband, Ian. To adopt so many children is unusual in itself. More unusual still is that the Nutmans chose to adopt three children with Down’s syndrome, a chromosomal disorder, and a fourth child who was believed to have learning difficulties as a baby, but was later discovered to be perfectly healthy.

Nutman’s story is to be featured in A Life Less Ordinary, a new series which begins on BBC2 Scotland today and is presented by Kirsty Wark, the BBC Newsnight presenter.

The documentary is an enchanting story of how Nutman overcame the obstacles which nature placed in her path to have the family she had always hoped for.

It also offers an insight into the selflessness of a woman who has devoted her life to children whose disabilities - real or perceived - played a part in their natural mothers’ decision to put them up for adoption.

Watching the programme, it is difficult not to marvel at Nutman’s willingness to embrace that which so overwhelmed others. But such a reaction would only provoke Nutman’s wrath.

"Nothing annoys me more than those people who tell me I must have a huge heart to be a mother to disabled children," she says, sitting in the living room of her family’s four-bedroomed house on a council estate in Kirkcaldy, Fife.

"As far as I’m concerned, I have been selfish, because I did this for me, so that I could have children to love.

"I feel greedy that we have so many children just for us, greedy that we wanted to get so much fun and so much love. To suggest that I am selfless makes my blood boil."

As Nutman speaks, she constantly pauses to talk to her children as they wander around the house. Stuart is asked to replace his soft toys in his bedroom. George is asked to entertain the lively Jackie upstairs for a while. Lauren politely introduces herself into the conversation, and is encouraged by her mother to talk about trips to the family caravan and playing prize bingo at the caravan club.

In the background, a joiner’s saw screeches back and forth, as the kitchen is replaced. The telephone rings, is answered, rings again.

But Nutman manages to conduct an interview, while simultaneously ensuring supper is ordered from a local takeaway.

Throughout, she smiles like a woman who is blessed, and too aware of life’s priorities to worry that the three loads of washing she should have done today - as she does every day - are piled in the bath because the washing machine has been unplumbed.

The relaxed domestic chaos is a world away from the life medics warned her she should be prepared to face when it was discovered that her reproductive system was incomplete, and that she has only one kidney.

Her story began in 1965 when by chance she accompanied her mother on an appointment to the family’s GP.

She recalls: "The doctor thought my mum might be entering the menopause, and asked her when she started her periods.

"She couldn’t remember, so he asked me when I started mine - and I told him my periods had never arrived.

"He examined me right away and told me that he could not feel my womb, but he supposed I must have one.

"So he referred me to the Chelsea Women’s Hospital for a check-up."

Six months later, following an examination at the London hospital, the gynaecologist gave Nutman the news that was to change her life.

She says: "When the doctor told me that I didn’t have a womb, I felt completely empty. And angry - angry at life, at my body.

"All my life I had assumed I would grow up, get married and have kids - that’s what women did as far as I was concerned. The thought of a career just didn’t come into it for me - I wanted to be a mum."

Nutman met the man who later became her first husband at the age of 21, and following their marriage she fulfilled her need to mother children by fostering. When the marriage floundered in her mid-thirties, she continued to foster, and it was through one of her young charges that she met her second husband, Ian, who was then teaching at a school for children with special needs.

They married in 1986, she aged 37 and he 27.

Nutman says: "I had told Ian from the start of our relationship that I could never have children. He just said: ‘Oh well, we can adopt’."

However, when they approached their local authority, they were told that her age made her an unlikely candidate for the adoption of a healthy baby, when younger potential parents were available.

This led them to approach Barnardo’s, the children’s charity which helps find adoptive parents for children who are difficult to place because of health, emotional or learning difficulties.

The Nutmans believe that disability was one of the key reasons each of their four children were available for adoption, but neither had any reservations about adopting such a child.

Nutman recalls: "So what if a baby has a disability? Are we supposed to look on them as sub-standard, second-class? To me they are just little people who need a home and love and protection, just like a perfectly healthy baby.

"Besides, I wanted a family of my own. If this was the only way I could have a family, that was fine by me.

"One or two people tried to put us off - my mum said I had no idea how much work a disabled child could be. I just replied that I wasn’t going to ask her to feed and clothe and care for them 24 hours a day, and that was that."

The Nutmans adopted Lauren, who has Down’s syndrome, a year after they married when she was aged seven months.

She recalls: "We were ecstatic - to hold that little warm body and think she’s ours, we get to take this one home and keep her. I was finally a mum, at the age of 38. We just never stopped nursing her - we couldn’t put her down."

Three years later, the Nutmans adopted George, whom doctors originally believed also had learning difficulties. However, following his post-adoption medical, it transpired that he was free of disability.

Ian says: "It was like winning the pools, we were so happy for him, that he would not have any problems. It was a bit ironic, because we would never have been considered for a healthy child. We just said thank you very much and whisked him away home."

They went on to adopt Stuart three years later and then Jackie, five years after that.

As well as having Down’s syndrome, both boys have additional health problems, which can mean they require a more attention that other Down’s children.

Stuart suffers from a condition which means is not conscious of needing to use the toilet, and needs to change his clothes several times a day.

Jackie suffers from medium to severe deafness in both ears, and has difficulty drinking, so four times daily has to be fed liquids through a plastic tube which has been fitted to his stomach.

The Nutmans days now begin at around 6am, when they will rise to snatch an hour together over the breakfast table, before their hectic days begin.

Nutman says: "That first hour with Ian in the morning is the key to our relationship - you have to work hard to make time to be alone in a family like this.

"We are a team completely. I’d recommend what we have done to anyone, so long as your marriage is strong and you are both totally committed to what you are doing."

Given the chance to swap her family for children she had borne herself, Nutman says that she would not do it.

"To me it wasn’t about giving birth to a baby - it was about having someone to care for.

"The need to nurture is so strong. From the day Lauren was first ours to take home, I never looked back and thought I wish I could have a baby - because now I did have a baby of my own."

The Nutmans have not ruled out the possibility of adopting more children.

"We don’t have any plans for another baby at the moment, but when we started out I wanted six children - so you never know.

"There are so many little ones out there, with their problems, who need someone to love them and to care for them in this cruel world.

"As I always say - we’ve always got room for another one."

A Life Less Ordinary was produced by Wark Clements for BBC Scotland.

Edwina Nutman’s story is due to be screened tonight.