'Giving up a child for adoption has a lifetime impact'

 

A woman relieved to discover her son had turned out well after adoption:"In the late 1970s I had a child who was adopted - at a time when 30 per cent of Irish children born outside marriage were adopted.

"While my experience of pregnancy and placement was much less traumatic than your friend's, the fact that I had a child who was adopted was difficult to discuss with people until comparatively recently. I always wondered about how my child was progressing and what was happening to him, and knew very little until I contacted the relevant adoption society after my child had reached the age of 21. It provided me with non-identifying information and told the adoptive family that I had been in contact. The mother sent me some photographs, which were terrific. Since then I have had the opportunity to see for myself that my son is a lovely lad and turned out very well.

"Giving up a child for adoption has a lifetime impact. One of the things which I've found helpful to remember is that what we did was the most generous act anyone could undertake. Some adoptive families always toast their child's mother at Christmas and birthdays as a gesture of appreciation and recognition.

"Should your friend decide to discuss the adoption now with her adult children and husband, I'm sure that they will fully appreciate how radically things have changed in Ireland over the last 30 to 40 years and that she took a very brave and loving decision, which was in the best interest of her child in the prevailing circumstance. Of course what she did does not make her unmotherly! Your friend's adult children will know what a loving mother she has been to them for many years."

"My child's father didn't want to know and still doesn't - I see him in the supermarket"

A woman who gave up her son 30 years ago: "I had to keep my first pregnancy secret because my father was a very important person in the community and my child's father was the son of my father's best friend. To this day, neither of these men know that they became grandfathers when my first child was born.

"My child's father didn't want to know and still doesn't - I often see him in the supermarket on Saturday mornings, and he walks right by me. . . I think that men who get women pregnant, then deny it and walk away, should have a permanent tattoo on their foreheads that says: 'I fertilised an egg and I didn't take responsibility!'

"I'm not angry and bitter. You have to see the positives of adoption for women of my generation and not get into Irish martyrdom. Adoption was the answer to a problem at the time. I was 19 years old and I stayed in hospital, breastfeeding my baby for a week until the social worker took my child, put it in a Moses basket on the back seat of her car and drove off. I went home alone to my apartment in London and breathed a sigh of relief. There was no way a single mother could survive then with a small baby and still hold down a job. Adoption was a solution. Nobody died. It wasn't an abortion - the child lived. I didn't bond with the child I gave away as I did with my other children.

"It would be far worse to bond with a child only to see that child die.

"Some birth mothers take the view of 'my life has been so awful'. My view is: 'That's not what ruined your life.' Maybe you married the wrong man afterwards or had other difficulties, but having given away your baby isn't the reason you are unhappy now. Everybody gets a blow, a wake-up call that makes them move from childhood to adulthood. Everybody has an experience that forces them to become adults, and you can't blame that experience for all your problems. You have to move on.

"I'm afraid that birth mothers speaking about their pain would put off young girls today from seeing adoption as a viable choice. There are so many couples who can't have children, and I would love to see adoption coming back in again. Abortion can be hard to live with and women should have the choice to continue their pregnancies and have their babies adopted if that is what's right for them.

"I would love to be a surrogate mother, having children for people who can't have them, if I was still able - why is that any different than giving your child up for adoption? I think it was the secrecy and shame that caused us so much pain. A friend of mine was at a wedding recently - a table of eight, four couples all in their 50s - and one of the women got very drunk and said out of the blue: 'Before I was married I had a baby and gave it away, and I don't give a damn what any of you think!' Then two of the other women admitted that they too had got pregnant and given babies away before they got married. Imagine! Three out of four women at a table at a wedding had had that experience. That was our generation in the 1970s.

"My firstborn has never come looking for me. I think that means he's happy. I would never go looking for him, because you just have to leave well enough alone.

"If there was anyone I'd like to meet, it would be the mother of the other child that the couple who adopted my child also adopted. I was told that she looked like me and was similar in social background and personality. The social workers were very good at that - matching us birth mothers with adoptive parents in terms of looks and personality so that the children to be adopted would fit right in.

"A few years ago, I told my grown children that I had given birth to a child and had the child adopted. One reason I told them was so that one of my daughters wouldn't start dating her half-brother by mistake.

"For me, there was a sense of freedom. It's not as bad as telling your children you have a terminal disease - and if my children can't accept it, then too bad."

"Even though I have her number, I dare not telephone my birth mother"

A man adopted 40 years ago, who feels shunned by his birth family: "I am an adopted person who has successfully made contact with his birth mother but still finds himself in a limbo of secrecy. I was born and adopted in 1956. Through the adoption society I contacted my mother in 2003 and we had one meeting in 2005, but since then there have been only three phone calls, all motivated by her need to defend her position of absolute secrecy.

"From our meeting in 2005, I got enough information to trace back into the ancestry of both my parents, and I am very glad to have had that opportunity. But now I have exhausted the genealogical escape lines. After many hours spent in libraries, archives, presbyteries, graveyards, etc, I have collected a folder of documents recording the facts of my ancestors' lives, but I have no real access to my living relatives. Even though I know where my mother lives, I may not visit her. Even though I have her number, I dare not telephone her. This is because she has never told her husband or her family. I am her secret. I do not want to be, but I am.

"I have nothing to hide. I would be more than happy to be able to announce to the world: 'I am this woman's son; this man was my father.' But I cannot do so. For my mother's sake, I must remain silent, invisible, non-existent.

"I am in many ways free, independent, comfortable, even privileged. But because I continue to be my mother's secret, my sense of identity remains muted. Some part of me - the essence or core that non-adopted people may take for granted - is always suppressed.

"I have three grown-up children, each older than my mother was when she found herself pregnant and fled to England to deal with her crisis. Now I am the father of a five-year-old girl for whom this grandmother just does not exist. I don't see that I have any choice but to keep this information from my daughter, but it means that the charade of secrecy continues . . . I am not just the object of secrecy, but a participant in the process. Not only must I carry with me someone's secret, I am that secret incarnate.

"What am I to do if my mother dies? Am I to appear after a decent interval of mourning and reveal myself to her family? How would they feel? Wouldn't it be better if she could bring herself to tell them herself? Sometimes I think that people imagine that we live in enlightened times - not so for people embroiled in the absurd secrecy cycle of adoption. On one occasion, my mother spotted me in the supermarket and she swung her trolley round and resurfaced at the farthest corner of the shop.

"I very much support what your friend suggests, a forum for birth mothers aged 60-plus to share their stories and support each other. Life is too short to be taking all this to the grave."

"I used to hear women screaming . . . Was the same thing to happen to me?"

A woman forced into adoption 40 years ago: "As a 16-year-old, I was one of these girls in the 1960s. I was sent to what I thought was a boarding school, with absolutely no idea that anything was wrong with me. I was so naive that when I started to put on weight I believed what I was told there, that I was eating too much. I used to hear women screaming in the night, and the following morning these women had been moved to another part of the building. What was I to think but that they were doing something to them and they had disappeared? Was the same thing to happen to me? There was no sign of babies to give a hint, as the mothers were moved to another part of the building with their babies and never the two would meet.

"Anyway, my turn came, and the screaming was in fact the birth of babies, and now I discovered that this was the problem. My baby daughter was born and died after a week or two. This death was not once addressed with me, nor was there a funeral either.

"After I returned home - no baby, no death, nothing. My way of coping was to push it away and get on with my life. However, this proved to be impossible as I was constantly depressed and showing signs of several illnesses for years. In the past 15 years I have been dealing with this in therapy and have been reliving and releasing the pain and suffering.

"Worse still, when I went about looking for records of my baby and proof of my time there, I was about to be further pained to discover that there was no record of me being there and no record of my ever having had a baby. Can you imagine what this has done to me? I have suffered many things but I can tell you that no pain compares to the pain of a mother being separated from her child. This is the ultimate. Nothing compares.

"The only proof I have that I was there is that one of the girls died suddenly when I was there. She died of a blood-clot or something similar. We were very aware of this and I can still see the hearse driving down the avenue bringing her home to be buried. This is all I have. The biggest part of all this is the denial and secrecy around it. Secrets kill us, and mine gave me breast cancer eight years ago, but thankfully I am still here to tell the tale.

"Your friend and her baby - I would like you to tell her that her children would probably be her best support in this. Times have changed and her children would be appalled at what she has carried. I'm sure that her husband would be too."

"I am now in my 40s, but I don't think it goes away until it is dealt with"

A woman who finds secrecy the most difficult aspect of being adopted: "I am the child of an unmarried mother, and a father who was married to somebody else. I don't like to go into detail in an e-mail, but, in short, a very complicated route was taken to keep my parentage a secret and make it appear that I was the child of a married couple.

"I feel, however, that I carried a lot of the surrounding guilt and shame. The most difficult part was the secrecy and, as you say in your article, being out of sync with the changing times now. When I try to articulate and talk about the experience it seems a bit ridiculous to be dwelling on it, as I am now in my 40s, but I don't think it goes away until it is dealt with. I agree with your point that we need to remember and explain to younger generations. There are reasons why I am the way I am, why society is the way it is, and things that need to be explained, opened up, accepted and forgiven."

Shared experience: support and advice

If you have been affected by adoption and need support or advice, contact adoption@barnardos.ie or the Barnardos adoption helpline 01-4546388 (open from 10am to 2pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays).

Barnardos will be offering four evening meetings for adopted people, starting at the end of September, and an evening meeting for adoptive parents, concerning search and reunion issues, in early October.

For other resources, go to www.adoptionloss.ie or www.mathairail.org.