A teenager’s adoption story: ‘I always thought this is all my fault’
A teenager struggled for years searching for answers to the ‘puzzle’ of her adoption
Mari Gallagher and her daughter Tanya at their home in Newbridge, Co Kildare. Photograph: Laura Hutton
As a child growing up, Tanya Gallagher always thought her parents in Kazakhstan had given her up for adoption because they didn’t love her.
“I was naive, I was a kid,” says the now 18-year-old school-leaver, who was raised in Co Kildare. “Your parents are your parents and if they don’t want you, it must be because they don’t love you,” is what her younger self reasoned. “I always thought ‘this is all my fault’.”
When she learnt the truth about her birth circumstances and understood her birth mother’s decision better, it was like a burden had been lifted from her young shoulders.
Tanya acknowledges she has been very lucky to get some answers to the many questions she has been asking from an early age. She reckons she is in a small minority of the estimated 6,000 children adopted to Ireland from overseas to have so much information about her birth family and to have been reunited through social media, although still separated by geography. “I see adoption like a puzzle and I am constantly looking for little pieces to put into it,” she says of her life story so far.
Tanya was very fortunate that her adoptive parents, Paul and Mari Gallagher, were pro-active from early on in trying to track down her birth parents and also those of her older brother Kev (21), who had been adopted from Russia two years earlier. But, crucially too, her birth mother Marina, was open to contact being made.
Home in Newbridge, Mari and Tanya give their own, fascinating perspectives on the fraught “journey” of adoption. The fairytale view of it as being simply about matching parents desperate for a child to love with a child who needs a loving home and that then everybody can live happily ever after, has undoubtedly been tarnished. Yet society’s understanding of the underlying complexities is still a work in progress.
The testimony in the recent Ana Kriégel murder trial about how the 14-year-old girl, adopted from Russia at the age of two, was bullied over having a “fake mam and dad”, offered a deeply disturbing glimpse of how those perceived as an “outsider” can be victimised among teenage peers.
Mari, who can identify more than most with Ana’s parents, struggles to find words to talk about what to her was “an unspeakable case”. But she acknowledges it shone a light on how Ana “just not fitting in led her to be prey for somebody”.
However, Tanya feels it wasn’t fair to link what happened to her adoption. “Yes, she was vulnerable and could have been struggling at school but anyone can get into any sort of trouble with the wrong people.”
The way the media rooted it back to adoption “kind of irked me”, she admits. “I got a few questions in school: ‘Are you following the case?’ ‘You know she’s adopted?’.”
Tanya also refers to the coincidental, yet poignant, timing of the recent launch by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone of an expansion of post-adoption services run by Barnardos, just 24 hours after the two 14-year-old boys on trial were found guilty of Ana’s murder.
Mari would be the first to admit that she and her husband were naive when they went to their first meeting about adopting a child back in 1996. Inevitably, they were bringing their own pain, that of infertility, to what is a triangular relationship of adoptive parents/birth parents/child, each of whom has some kind of sorrow to carry.
“It is very important to be optimistic because there are dark sides,” says Mari, who believes if, as with most things in life, you overthink the negatives you would never do anything. “You want it so much – it’s the want that really drives you.”
With the process of international adoption taking three years in the 1990s – it’s longer and more difficult now – nobody could ever accuse adoptive parents of stumbling into parenthood.
She remembers social workers expressing caution, but “I interpreted that as them trying to put us off”. In hindsight, she understands “they had seen more than I had seen”.
Almost 20 years on, Mari, who has since trained as a psychotherapist, unflinchingly confronts every inconvenient truth about adoption in a book, Becoming a Mother: Reflections on Adoptive Parenthood (Orpen Press) that came out in September 2018. She believes it is the first book published in Ireland to give this viewpoint and wonders why, in a small country where so many people have been affected by adoption, there is still such reluctance to talk about it.
Mari thought once she and Paul had taken eight-month-old Kevin out of an orphanage in Siberia in February 1999, and then 10-month-old Tanya from her orphanage in Kazakhstan in December 2001, that any links with the birth families had been cut. It was only when the Gallaghers heard another adoptive parent in Ireland talk about using the basic information given at the time of adoption to try to track down her child’s birth family that they decided to hire a private investigator to do the same. They believed a fuller picture could be helpful for their children, with whom they had always been very open about their adoption.
“I have to admit I was curious too,” says Mari. “If I wanted to know, I could certainly understand why they would want to know.”
It was around this time, in 2007, that Mari first felt the need for specialised support on how best to present new information to Kevin and Tanya, aged eight and six respectively, at the start of the search. She contacted the Barnardos post-adoption service and so started an invaluable relationship for both her and her children.
Tanya was nearly nine when Mari sensed her daughter had a lot of questions that she was feeling quite deeply about and might benefit from independent, trained support. “I didn’t want to go in because it was branded as therapy and that kind of scared me,” says Tanya. The first appointment had to be cancelled after she refused to go; trouble with the car on the way scuppered the second but at the third attempt she made it.
“I am forever grateful that I went,” says Tanya of that first meeting with therapist Andrew Walker. She has been attending sessions with him, on and off, ever since.
“It was out of the house, in a different environment and I didn’t feel I had to hold back on anything I was worried about or thinking. I think I was quite brutally honest in some of those sessions.”
She saw Walker more often between the ages of 11 and 15, when she was accumulating detailed information about her birth family through photos and social media, and gaining greater insight into what had happened. Her birth mother Marina already had two young children, aged four and two, when Tanya was born and her birth father was not around.
‘They were in poverty’
When videos came in of her birth mother and siblings’ living conditions – “it was in front of me, they were in poverty. She couldn’t provide for me when I was born,” says Tanya. “I could actually see it for what it was, that cleared it up.
“One of the biggest things hanging over me ever since I was a kid was ‘they didn’t love me’, then when I saw this it was, ‘maybe they did; they couldn’t afford to keep me’.”
Although Tanya reckons her teenage years have been pretty much the same as those of her Irish-born peers, “there were definitely things that I experienced that people who weren’t adopted didn’t even think about”. The two worlds she straddles can be illustrated by the fact that within hours of a momentous first Skype call with her sister Anastasia, she went out to a disco with her friends here.
Before that, when moving into secondary school, “a tough time for everybody”, she had the first emails coming through from a sister a thousand miles away. And in Junior Cert year, when everybody was worried about exams, “I worried if I would be able to call my mum”.
Wondering what it would be like to meet her birth mother one day was always on Tanya’s mind. But Marina’s sudden death after a stroke last year at the age of 49 robbed her of that possibility. “There was so much hope I had placed on her, and so much I wanted from her and everything that surrounded her.”
Although she had learned about her father’s death in 2006 some years previously, she knew nothing about him and the news had little impact on her.
“I didn’t mourn my father’s loss but I mourned hers because I knew her, I could see myself in her. When she died it was a big piece of hope and identity wiped out, which was really hard.”
I asked for one song and the choir sang three
The Gallaghers looked into the possibility of travelling to Kazakhstan for the funeral but there was no way they could get there in time. Tanya felt she had to mark her death here in some way, so she rang the director of the Newbridge Gospel Choir, with which both she and Paul sing, and asked if they could do a small act of remembrance.
It was held in the choir’s rehearsal room and Tanya invited about seven of her closest friends. “I asked for one song and the choir sang three. I lit a candle and had a photo in a frame. It was my way of saying goodbye.”
Tanya knows it was a hard time for her parents too – “there was nothing they could say to me or I could say to them about the situation”. Another session with Walker was a huge help. “I could just talk and get it all out.”
A video made by her birth family had shown her around their home. Once you see those images they are planted in your head, explains Tanya, who often imagined walking into that house and wondered: “What will I say when I meet Marina? What will I be like? Is it a hugging situation or do I put out my hand and say ‘thank you for birthing me’?”
She regrets that now, “she will never know how grateful I was for everything and how much I really loved her.
“I have my Mum,” she says turning to Mari, “and I wouldn’t change anything for the world but my heart was always with her as well. There were 101 questions: did she think about me, did she love me, did she want to meet me? She probably did, as she wouldn’t have agreed to the contact otherwise.
“Seeing her face to face would have been one more piece in the puzzle,” adds Tanya, who had always thought such a meeting might throw new light on her father too. “When she died, I lost him as well.”
Mari has wrestled with the ethics of international adoption but believes it can work for everybody. What’s needed is good post-adoption support and a good attitude on the part of adoptive parents towards the child having all the birth information possible and also being able to accept that the birth parents are there.
“It is very important that adoptive parents don’t see international adoption as a way to avoid birth contact,” adds Mari, who has heard some people say they prefer the distance and anonymity of adopting from abroad. “Just because they are thousands of miles away does not give you an out.”
Barnardos Post Adoption Services
Barnardos Post Adoption Services is now operating on a national basis, after increased funding from Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.
“For the first time, therapeutic post-adoption services will be available to all adopted children and teenagers: whether adopted domestically, internationally, or adopted from foster care, wherever they are in the country,” said Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone at the recent launch.
Currently supporting about 150 children every year in the Leinster area through individual and group sessions, Barnardos has now opened post-adoption centres in Cork city and Claregalway, Co Galway, as well as expanding its Dublin base.
Christine Hennessey, head of Barnardos Post Adoption Services, estimates that more than 50 per cent of the youngsters they see come from eastern Europe. “They would have spent their early, formative months and years in very poorly run institutional care, so would have had significant trauma,” she explains.
When an infant’s early physical, emotional and social needs are not met, “unfortunately the effect can be surprisingly long-lasting, particularly around emotional immaturity”. It’s not uncommon, she says, for internationally adopted teenagers to feel they are on the outside and not quite part of their peer group.
“They can be very keen to be liked and accepted,” says Hennessey. “They might be prepared to go the extra mile to make a friend. It is one of the consequences of emotional immaturity.”
She sees a “huge gap” in support for the estimated 6,000 international adoptees here who might want to trace their birth parents. “At the moment, young people and parents are employing private, commercial searchers, which is not satisfactory at all,” she says.
Barnardos is often contacted for advice, “but it is a huge area coming down the tracks given the demographic”, she says. The wave of children adopted from Romanian orphanages are mostly in their 20s now, while many Russians are in their teenage years as are those from Asian countries such as Vietnam and China, while there is a significant group aged about seven to 12 from Ethiopia.
Teenagers “can be intensely curious about what happened to their birth families, she adds, “so sometimes it can be hard to separate their therapeutic needs from their need to find out about their birth family”.
The charity runs workshops for adoptive parents, such as one on “Raising Adopted Teenagers” in Cork on September 26th.
It has also been newly funded to employ a psychotherapist specifically to provide counselling services to adults whose births were incorrectly registered in their adoptive parents’ names. This is in the wake of Tusla taking over the records of the Dublin-based St Patrick’s Guild in 2016 and discovering that many of them had been falsified.
Tusla had to break the news to at least 126 people that their births had been incorrectly registered between 1946 and 1969 – some of whom were hearing for the first time that the parents they had grown up with were not their birth parents.
For more information on Barnardos Post Adoption Services see barnardos.ie. A confidential helpline, 01-454 6388, operates 10am to 1pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays