Birth mothers’ stories: ‘You were pummelled psychologically’
Many women who gave babies up for adoption in 20th-century Ireland still feel the loss
Barnardos set up a support group for mothers whose children were adopted, three women share their stories.
Throughout much of its history, Ireland was a cold and inhospitable place for women who became pregnant outside of marriage. The recent campaign by survivors of mother and baby homes for the right to access their personal information is another reminder of the long, painful shadow cast by these institutions.
But it wasn’t just the institutions. Society, too, colluded in the message that single mothers could not offer a good home to a child; that sex outside marriage was sinful; that the only way to escape the shame and sanction was to place the child for adoption.
Even as attitudes towards single mothers began to slowly change in the 1980s, and the mother and baby homes closed, those pressures lingered in some women’s own family homes, doctors’ surgeries, the counselling rooms of agencies, where they were told they wouldn’t cope, that their child would be better off with a married couple – anyone else, as long as they were married.
In October 1990, Barnardos set up a support group for mothers whose children were adopted. Thirty years on, the group is still going and has published a collection of stories, poems and artworks submitted by mothers. Three of those participants share their stories here. Some surnames have been withheld on request of the interviewees.
Geraldine: ‘I don’t know do you recover’
When Geraldine discovered she was pregnant in 1973, one of her first instincts was to get out of Ireland. “It might as well have been 1873, because attitudes were still so awful.” Single motherhood “was completely taboo, the worst thing that could happen”.
Even today, she finds it difficult to talk about that time. She recounts the bones of it: she went to North America, where she had family, to figure out what she was going to do. She hadn’t thought much beyond that. “I just had to flee out of Ireland. I had an idea what it would be like here; I knew about the mother and baby homes.”
She was put in touch with a Catholic agency there, where “the counselling was really biased towards the idea that the babies should be adopted. I used to sit there saying: ‘But today can we not talk about me maybe keeping the baby?’ But it always ended up with: ‘Well, do you have family support? Do you have a job? Do you have means?’”
The eventual decision to have her son adopted was, in one sense, “a genuine free choice. But you were pummelled psychologically into believing that you would not make a good job of this.”
Geraldine returned to Ireland and waited for his 18th birthday when she had convinced herself her son would contact her. “I literally had a knot in my tummy waiting for the doorbell to ring.” But it wasn’t until he was 31 that the letter she had been waiting for arrived from a social worker in North America. “I think I spent half that first phone call [to the social worker] absolutely bawling and apologising that I was crying so much, when this is what I want more than anything. But all the past had come back at me.”
She met her son a few months later in the city where he now lives. She brought a photo album she had made for him, and they sat in a hotel room, held hands and talked for four hours. Months later, he came to stay with her family in Ireland. They are still in regular touch, though it was never again as intense as it was in that first year. “It had to be intense, because we were finding each other.”
During that time she discovered Barnardos, and began to process the decades of unresolved grief with other women who were going through the same experiences. “There are hundreds and hundreds – thousands – of stories like mine. There is so much people are still going through. People still are afraid they will be judged. There’s still shame, secrecy, sadness.
“My son, Kieran, is 47 now. He is a lovely, lovely man and says he is totally unscarred by the experience. But the mothers are scarred. How could you not be? I don’t know do you recover. To have a baby, and to give up the baby, that is so wrong for a mother.”
To other mothers, she says: “Forgive yourself. Try and reconcile yourself to the past. I’m so full of gratitude for all I have now, but the present being good doesn’t mean that the past is healed.”
Edel: ‘It’s like a death’
“My first thought was to give the baby up for adoption. You just think these things, and you say the words to yourself, but you don’t really understand the feelings behind them,” says Edel, who was 20 when she discovered she was pregnant in 1985.
As the pregnancy went on, “my emotions changed completely. Things were starting to change [in society]. There were supports there. But there was still the stigma, there was still the shame.”
Edel discovered that her own mother had given a baby up for adoption when she was 19. “A lot of that played on my mind too. I know my mother’s family looked down on her as a fallen woman.” She didn’t want to give them more ammunition to use against her mother.
In the end, she felt she had no choice: she couldn’t give her daughter a stable home. “When I first became pregnant, it was all about me; by the end of it, it was about the baby, and what was the right thing for her.”
The moment she had to leave her baby behind in the hospital still replays in her mind like a video. Later, she would find herself looking into prams on the street, wondering. She stayed in touch with the agency, “but the rhetoric was always you need to move on with your own life”.
Edel’s daughter got in touch through the agency when she was 15, and they met before her 16th birthday. The reunion was everything she had imagined, and for six years they were in frequent contact. But then, she says, “something went wrong, somewhere along the way” and after her daughter moved abroad and had children of her own, the contact faded away.
This was before she joined the support group, and in hindsight, she wonders if “maybe I gave her too much information. Maybe she just wanted to meet, but she didn’t want all the rest of it, she didn’t want to meet her sisters.”
Losing her daughter for the second time “was like opening the wound all over again. I had photographs of her all over the house, and I had to take them all down.
“People just think that it’s something that you get over, and that you move on in your life. But it’s like any other grief. It’s like a death. You do get on with your life, you go through the motions, you go through the days, but it doesn’t mean that it has been an easy thing. It doesn’t mean you forget.”
Patricia Losty: ‘Years later, it’s still there’
When Patricia Losty became pregnant in 1982, a Catholic organisation arranged for her to stay with a family in the country. “The cover was that I was going to France as an au pair. They set up a French address, so I could write letters home with a French postmark. I went through the motions, I did everything that was asked of me.”
But during the long months of pregnancy, spending a lot of time on her own, she bonded with the baby. After a traumatic birth that ended in a Caesarean, “I just could not let her go.”
This created, she says, “a problem for everybody around me. I got a lot of: ‘How can you do this, you’re a single girl?’ She was put in to foster care while I tried to find a way to bring her home.” She becomes emotional as she recounts this. “All these years later, it’s still there.”
She went home to tell her father what had happened and that she planned to keep the baby, but when she got there, she couldn’t go through with it. Her parents’ marriage had broken down, and he had just been served divorce papers. Ultimately, she ended up going home without her daughter, but it took her months to sign the adoption papers.
Twenty-two years later, she had a highly emotional reunion with her daughter. “I had lost part of myself. All the feelings that were buried – the anger, the shame, the guilt, the sadness, the regret – all of that came up. And instead of the professionals saying: ‘This is all quite normal, you’re facing in to your loss here,’ they just didn’t understand that.”
It was only through Barnardos’ post-adoption service that she began to grieve the loss and understand those emotions.
Her daughter later described being terrified by Patricia’s visible trauma. “She said she needed some support in understanding what was going to happen in a reunion as well. It wasn’t as simple as: ‘Oh, I’m going to meet my mother.’ It was: ‘I’m going to meet myself as well. I’m going to confront what I have lost.’ And that’s what reunion is.”
Her daughter moved abroad for a few years, and during that time, Patricia engaged in a lot of therapy and qualified as a psychotherapist, “which enabled me to really turn myself inside out. When we met again, she said it was like meeting a different person.”
Better education is needed for everyone involved in working with adoption reunions, she believes. “We need to acknowledge the loss in adoption. Whatever the gains are, everyone comes in to adoption carrying a loss” – the child and both sets of parents. For the birth mother, “that primal wound is there, and will always be there”.
At the same time, “there is hope. You have to accept the loss and bring it with you. But you can live alongside it.”
For more see: www.barnardos.ie/pas