For many women, the desire to bear a child is primal. And as someone in her late 30s you might expect that urge to be almost unbearably strong for Jemma Bere.
Yet babies are not on the cards for Jemma, 38. It’s not that she has cause to think she can’t have them, or because she doesn’t love children.
Instead, in what many would say is one of the biggest sacrifices a woman could make, she vowed not to have children of her own after adopting her brother and sister — then aged just 11 and nine respectively — when she was in her early 20s.
Jemma Bere, 38, (pictured) vowed not to have children after adopting brother and sister then aged just 11 and nine respectively — when she was in her early 20s
Since she took Alex and Billie on as a young woman nearly 15 years ago they have been her priority. And even though they are now young adults that pledge still stands.
‘I already have two children,’ she explains. ‘Whatever I imagined, the responsibility didn’t magically disappear when they turned 18.’ Not that it’s a decision she’s ever had bitter feelings about.
‘It’s been an incredible rollercoaster,’ says Jemma who lives in Brecon, mid-Wales. ‘But I had no choice and absolutely no regrets. It’s the best decision I have ever made. I can’t imagine how their lives would have been otherwise nor mine. I’m just ridiculously proud of them.’
The story of Jemma’s incredible altruism is one that would melt even the hardest heart. At 23 she had not long graduated from university and had a job with a national campaigning organisation, fired up with ambition to join the UN one day.
Then overnight she gave up her carefree life after Alex and Billie’s mother — whom they shared with Jemma — died suddenly and their father was no longer able to care for them.
She brought the children back from Spain, where they had been living, and nurtured them, always putting her own desires second.
Jemma’s sister Billie and brother Alex pictured after just arriving in the UK in 2008
Today the pair are a credit to her mothering skills. Both are university graduates and remain close to Jemma, who is policy and research manager for Keep Wales Tidy.
But 15 years ago, the situation was more precarious, thanks to an upbringing that was loving but whose Bohemian elements were increasingly chaotic.
Jemma, who prefers not to talk about her own father, was in her teens when her teacher mum Jayne met Richard Williams, having returned to her roots in Brecon after years of travelling.
She gave birth to Alex in June 1997. Billie followed in November 1998. ‘Up until then we had been travelling a lot,’ says Jemma. ‘Mum was a free spirit who hated to settle down. She home schooled me and my younger brother Calvin while we moved around everywhere from Turkey to the Middle East.
Mum firmly believed we would benefit from being exposed to different languages and cultures and be educated by osmosis. It worked because Calvin and I both later did really well at school and university.’
Jemma (right) with her brother, Alex (left) and late mother, Jayne, then 40, (middle), who was hit by a speeding truck as she crossed the road to go to a shop in 2001
At first the family seemed happy. And Jemma loved playing with her tiny siblings. She read to them and taught them how to swim.
But it soon became obvious that Richard had a problem with alcohol. Sadly, Jayne — a charismatic woman with a zest for life — also began to drink heavily.
Jemma was often left to babysit, resenting the responsibility. So she was almost relieved when, in her final year at school, Jayne announced the family was moving to southern Spain for a fresh start.
Jemma moved in with her maternal grandmother to finish her A-levels and there were regular phone calls to her mother.
But just four months later, on the morning of June 16, 2001, disaster struck. In front of Richard and her children, Jayne, then 40, was hit by a speeding truck as she crossed the road to go to a shop.
She died in hospital a few hours later. ‘I was just 17 and I had lost my mum,’ Jemma recalls. ‘I was so grief-stricken, I was in physical pain. Despite our problems, I adored Mum and couldn’t imagine life without her.’
Jemma was also acutely aware of the trauma Alex and Billie were suffering. Aged two and three, they had seen the accident and were shocked and bewildered.
‘I rang them every week,’ says Jemma. ‘Billie just kept saying: ‘Mummy has bumped her head.’ She repeated it over and over for months. It was heartbreaking.’
The children clung to Jemma at their mum’s funeral — held two months later in Brecon. ‘I had one on either side, just clinging to me,’ she says. ‘At home, they followed me around like puppies.’
Jemma assumed Richard would stay in Brecon where he had family support. But he announced he was taking the children back to Spain where they had been happy.
Jemma (right) with her mum Jane and other brother Calvin in Thailand in 1992
After deferring for a year, to cope with her grief, in September 2002, Jemma started her degree in peace studies and sustainable development at Bradford University.
‘Mum valued education so highly that I knew it was what she would want for me,’ says Jemma. She kept in regular touch with Alex and Billie. Although it was obvious Richard was drinking heavily again, they were well cared for by a lovely young nanny called Marisa.
‘I visited virtually every holiday,’ says Jemma. ‘The children were always thrilled to see me but I rarely saw their father because he was either working or in a bar. I tried to reason with him but he refused to admit he was an alcoholic and needed help.
‘Mercifully their nanny, Marisa, was wonderful. She doted on the children and did everything for them.’ But in September 2006, Marisa said she would have to quit to look after her sick mother.
Three weeks later she rang Jemma to tell her that Alex and Billie had been taken into care. It was the moment Jemma had been dreading.
‘I got on the next plane and set up a meeting with the social worker,’ says Jemma. ‘Neighbours had reported the children were being neglected. I couldn’t deny it.’ Richard had three months to turn his life around to get them back. However, hard as she tried, Jemma could not persuade him to stop drinking.
‘He wasn’t a bad man,’ she says. ‘But he was sick and wouldn’t get the help he needed.’ Back in Bradford, Jemma was allowed a phone call every two weeks with the children, who had been placed in a children’s home, and their social worker. In January 2007 came the call that was to change her life.
As their father hadn’t been able to conquer his drinking demons, they were being put up for adoption.
Jemma says: ‘When they told me there was no guarantee they would be kept together or that I could see them again, I suddenly found myself saying: ‘Then I will look after them. Just send me the forms.’
‘Then I put the phone down in shock. You think when you are faced with big life decisions, that you have time to weigh up the pros and cons but this was instantaneous.
‘I wrestled with the idea all night — not whether it was right but whether I was the right person to do it. People who go through the adoption process normally have money, secure jobs and nice homes. I was so young. I had nothing to give apart from love.’
Jemma’s student friends thought she was either bonkers or brave. ‘They thought I was throwing my life away,’ she says. ‘But I’m really stubborn and, eventually, they came round.
‘Besides, I told everyone that it was only a short time. When they hit 18 I could stop being a mum and I would still be only 32 — no age at all. Now, of course, I know that responsibility never stops.’
The family pictured in Argentina. Jemma Bere adopted her brother and sister when their mother died in a road traffic accident
Jemma left her job and her flat and moved back to Brecon where she felt the children would be happy. It took 18 months for the adoption process to roll through the Spanish courts. Jemma didn’t dare mention her plans to the children. It was a lonely time. Friends were supportive but uncomprehending.
Finally, in July 2008, came the phone call from her solicitor Jemma had been longing for. The Spanish social services said she could pick the children up immediately.
‘I had waited so long. Now it was all systems go,’ says Jemma. She found a flat big enough for all of them and managed to furnish it in just six days.
‘I got everything from beds to a cooker by begging friends and scouring charity shops. Then I flew out to Spain where I could finally tell the children they were coming to live with me. They clung to me and we all cried. It was magical but also very scary.’
It’s almost impossible to imagine those first few months. Jemma had to learn to be a full-time mum at breakneck speed while Alex, 11, and Billie, nine, had to adapt to what was to them a foreign country and life with a sister they only knew from phone calls and occasional visits.
‘For the first few months they were very loving to me but clearly terrified I’d disappear,’ she says. ‘Billie thought they’d been sent to the care home because of something she’d done. She followed Alex around like a shadow.
‘I’d lie awake at night wondering what on earth I’d taken on and terrified something would happen to me and I wouldn’t be able to see it through. Then they would have no one.
‘The first job was teaching them English. I stuck Post-it notes on everything in both Spanish and English. They were so bright and motivated they picked it up very quickly. Suddenly I had to learn how to cook proper meals every day. I couldn’t believe how much growing children eat or how fast they grow. Alex went up four shoe sizes in a year. And then there was all the laundry. The washing machine was on night and day.’
Trickiest of all was treading the line between loving big sister and no-nonsense mum. ‘I knew if they didn’t respect me as a mum they would walk all over me,’ she says. ‘I told them there were only two rules: Do your homework and never, ever lie to me. Maybe because I’m only 14 years older, I was fine-tuned to when they were fibbing.’
As she finally got into her stride and the children settled at school, she felt confident enough to return to part-time work as a sustainable communities officer.
‘It wasn’t the high-flying career I’d dreamt of,’ she says. ‘But my priorities were totally different. The children have always come first.’ There were other sacrifices, too. She may have been in her mid-20s but nights out with friends were a rarity and dating was off her radar.
‘Dating honestly didn’t occur to me,’ she says. ‘I was busy and I had fought so hard for the children, I didn’t want anyone else to come in and interfere. I wanted to bring them up in my way.’
Then there were the teenage years to negotiate. ‘They never said: ‘You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my mum,’ but inevitably the lines blurred,’ says Jemma.
‘Sometimes that was good. As siblings we could have open conversations about issues like safe sex. I could be jokey which would have been deeply embarrassing if I were their mum. Of course, there were times when the arguments got so heated, I ended up in tears.
‘Then they were terribly apologetic. But overall we got on brilliantly. We still do.’
That’s undeniable to anyone meeting this extraordinary family. It’s also clear that Jemma has done a magnificent job. Both children are super confident. Alex, 24, is an extreme sports fanatic.
Jemma (middle) with her sister Billie, (left) and Alex (right) who adopted her bother and sister after their father could no longe rcare for them
After working in New Zealand and Canada where he trained as a snowboard instructor, he is living in Cardiff and planning to travel again as soon as restrictions allow. ‘The sister in me is eager to join him,’ says Jemma. ‘The mum in me is terrified he’ll break his neck.’
It’s a dual identity that can cause confusion when they’re all out together. While they look close enough in age to pass as siblings the body language tells a different story. ‘People can’t quite figure the relationship,’ Jemma smiles. ‘And who can blame them? To us it’s normal but it’s pretty unique.’
Although the children have never called her Mum, they give her Mother’s Day cards. Sadly they never reconciled with their father, who moved back to Wales before dying aged 53 in 2018.
Billie, 23, has just completed a degree in travel and tourism and lives close to Jemma, who’s enjoying her empty nest. ‘I’ve craftily turned their bedrooms into overspill wardrobes for my clothes but they both really know they are welcome home any time.’
Meanwhile, Jemma is finally in a long-term relationship. She met Kes Seymour, 49, an administrative assistant, at a wedding seven years ago. ‘The children were there, too, so he knew from the start we came as a package,’ she says.
‘I was nervous how we would all get on. But, apart from being shocked by how noisy teenagers can be, he has embraced it all.’
Typical of the way she has tried to negotiate her unusual role, she has a photo of Jayne in the house and talks to the children about her. Sadly they don’t remember much about their vivacious mother.
Typical also of Jemma that when I ask whether Jayne would be proud of her, she’s quick to respond. ‘She would be proud of all of us.’