‘I don’t have a single piece of reliable information about who I am’
Barnardos course for adopted adults explores the complex emotions on all sides
Eileen Heron (left) and Mary Jordan are both trying to find their birth mothers. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Eileen Heron holds a picture of herself as a baby. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Mary Jordan is trying to find her birth mother. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Terri Heron had been married for more than a decade and had no children when one day she got talking to a priest at a bus stop in Terenure, Dublin. On learning that she had no family of her own, the priest asked her whether she had ever considered adopting.
In May 1965, baby Eileen was delivered to the Herons’ home in Churchtown, along with a falsified birth certificate and a baptism certificate from St Andrew’s church, Westland Row, both passing off her adoptive parents as her birth parents.
It was unlawful but not unusual, says Eileen, 50 years later. However, it means there is no paper trail for her to follow in trying to find out where she came from.
“For the past 25 years I have been chipping away, trying to find some little thread that might connect me with my birth family.” While she celebrates April 22nd as her birthday, she has had to face up to the fact that “I actually don’t have a single piece of reliable information about who I am”.
She had always known she was adopted but feels she still doesn’t fully understand it. “Every time you hit a milestone in life, the birth of a child, the death of a parent, you are thrown back to reconsider that and you understand it in a new way.”
The first time she was jolted into thinking about it was in her 20s, when talking to a woman who had given up her baby daughter for adoption in the 1960s and who remarked that Eileen’s generation had no idea what it was like for women in those days.
“The hair stood up on the back of my neck and I thought, Out there is somebody who gave birth to me . . . I have to make sure if she ever needs to find me that I am available.”
As she set about trying to make that possible, she went to see the priest, whose name she knew from her adoptive mother. She can still remember the clothes she was wearing that day when she hopped into her car, a confident young woman with her own home and a good job, believing that he would think it would be lovely for her mother to see how well she turned out.
“The innocence of it,” she says. “I didn’t realise these people were not for shifting and weren’t going to help.”
The priest was adamant that he wouldn’t tell Eileen about where she came from and who her mother was “and that was kind of shocking”, she says. But he did say that her mother “had the same blue eyes as you” and she was “from a good medical family”.
This last comment was “shorthand for impeccable middle-class credentials”, she explains. Frequently, couples who adopted a baby were told the infant was from a “good medical family” and birth parents were told their baby would be placed with “a good medical family”. This little myth pops up all the time and “just shows the snobbery of the era”, she remarks.
Anger and humiliation
The only other name she has from her past is Nora, a midwife who was named on the birth cert, but she believes she died in the 1970s.
While initially Eileen’s concern was for her birth mother, she realised she too needed to find her, after her own daughter was born 17 years ago. Finally, she recognised that she hadn’t come out of the whole thing unscathed. After becoming a mother herself, “I understood both more and less”: more because it is a huge challenge to raise a child, but less because how could a mother give up her baby?
She also recalls watching her daughter’s paternal grandmother take the newborn in her arms and go through her body, her fingernails, the turn of her ear, saying “That’s like so and so . . . Mentioning relatives I had never heard of but seeing, in my child, all these relatives of her father’s extended family.”
Eileen knows that if she saw photos of her own extended birth family there would inevitably be people on that side who her daughter resembles. “It’s almost as if I do not fully recognise my own child, and that’s the thing I hadn’t expected: that it would affect your relationship with your own children.”
She appreciates now that her adoption did not begin and end in 1965. Indeed, her late adoptive mother sometimes became upset towards the end of her life, reflecting on how she had got so much joy out of rearing Eileen but at the expense of somebody else.
There is a huge amount of love in adoption, Eileen stresses, “but underneath the surface there are all these complex emotions of guilt, regret, bereavement and loss”. It is very hard to unpack them, especially in an environment where culturally there still isn’t the support for you to do that, she says.
Last year Eileen enrolled in one of the twice-yearly courses run by Barnardos for adopted adults, “one of the most useful things I have ever done for myself”.
A group of no more than 12 people meet for four weekly sessions, covering topics such as what it was like to grow up adopted and how to search for a birth family, exploring the hopes and fears around that process. In the third session, a birth mother and an adoptive mother give their perspectives, before the final night looks at how life can be after a reunion.
“One of the aims of the course is to get people to see adoption from the different sides,” says Christine Hennessey, post- adoption services project leader with Barnardos. She recommends it for all adopted adults, ideally before they start searching for their birth family.
Although the course has been running for 20 years, its content has evolved and one big change is the use of social media in searches. “We would advise people against using social media as a way to approach either birth relatives or adopted adults,” says Hennessey. “It’s a very abrupt tool and it can be quite frightening for people.” Instead, Barnardos encourages mediated contact.
“We have found from long experience that outcomes are much better if there is a professional mediator who is gently approaching either an adopted adult or a birth mother, and giving them the chance to come in and talk about their memories and their loss, before they start the whole business of contact letters, emails, and getting to know people.” That way, she adds, “they have a buffer zone and somebody to take care of them”.
Hearing the stories of others in the group made Eileen realise how her situation differed from those whose had been adopted legally. “I also realised the chances of me ever finding my birth family are terribly small. That was like a bereavement.”
It was a highly emotional discovery, more than 20 years after she started to inquire about her background. Having had a happy childhood in Beaumont, north Dublin, being adopted was not something she had dwelled on until the birth of her own first child, although one of her earliest memories is being called into a room by her parents at the age of eight to be told that she was adopted and that her birth parents were dead. (This last part was not true.)
“It was just left hanging there. They were really good parents and I couldn’t have asked for more, but my life definitely changed. It wasn’t something you could talk about at that age.”
She was to find out later that, in a strange twist of fate, she and a schoolfriend, who lived around the corner, had both been born within weeks of each other to unmarried mothers in Sean Ross Abbey, in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, where Philomena Lee had given birth to her son more than a decade before.
Mary’s friend tracked down her birth mother and learned how the young women were allowed to stay at the abbey for six weeks after the birth, to allow for recovery and breastfeeding, before they took the train to Dublin to hand their baby over to a nun at the station. The babies were brought to Temple Hill nursery in Blackrock, where adoptive parents could choose one and arrangements were finalised through the St Patrick’s Guild adoption society.
The guild offices on Haddington Road were Mary’s first port of call when she started searching in 1993 but she feels she was dismissed out of hand. The only thing she learned was that her mother had been just 15 or 16 when she had given birth to her, and that she was from the west of Ireland.
St Patrick’s Guild has since closed and its records transferred to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which has limited resources to try to meet the demand for adoption information and tracing. Mary is waiting for a social worker to be assigned to her case file; they may, or may not, be able to give her more information.
She “parked” her search many times over the years because she had three sons to raise; her adoptive father died 20 years ago and her adoptive mother died this year.
“I’d go so far several times, and then I would just have to pull back. I felt I couldn’t cope with it and I would be short-changing the family.”
However last year, when news broke of the almost 800 babies buried at the Tuam mother and baby home: “Something just hit me between the eyes, and I said I had to do something about this.”
One thing she did was to take the “fantastic” Barnardos course, on which, she says of the group, “we totally got each other”. All at different stages on their journey, they continue to meet socially once a month.
“It could be something I was born with; they don’t know.” The consultant asked her for her medical history and, for the umpteenth time in her life, she had to explain why she doesn’t know it all. “He said to me ‘You need to find out this information’; that’s easier said than done, obviously.”
She feels strongly that adoption agencies refusing to share information they have on file is a denial of the human rights of adopted people when it comes to issues such as medical history.
“I can understand protecting birth mothers, but their rights seem to over-ride ours,” she says – and, as Eddie points out beside her on the sofa in their Santry home – their sons’ right to know their genetic history too.
After finding what they are sure is her birth cert last year, she and Eddie searched for the birth cert of Mary’s mother and have narrowed it down to one of 24 possibilities based on the information they have. While they know they could cause upset if they started trying to find the one among those 24, it is very frustrating to have to wait years to go through official channels.
“I wouldn’t want to knock on a 70-odd-year-old woman’s door and say ‘Hi, I’m your daughter’. That’s awful. I would prefer to go through a mediator,” says Mary.
Her name is on the Adoption Authority’s national contact preference register, which was set up in 2005. Both she and Eileen stress that the register is not just for birth mothers and adopted adults, and that extended family members (or even a close friend) can place information with the Adoption Authority. If there is a match, both sides will be informed.
Mary doesn’t know whether she wants to meet her birth mother, if she is still alive: “That’s another step on the journey. I haven’t actually decided that yet; whether there could be a relationship now I don’t know. But I want to know who I am, for my sake, for Eddie’s sake, for my children, for my grandchildren.”
The next four-week Barnardos course for adopted adults, “Exploring Adoption”, starts on October 28th. See barnardos.ie or tel. 01-8134100. Barnardos also runs a post-adoption helpline on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 1pm; tel. 01-4546388. firstname.lastname@example.org
‘I wanted to find out where I came from. I wasn’t looking for a big relationship’
Janet* had a great childhood and had never been unhappy about being adopted but, on reaching her 40s, she started to think about it more.
After “a lot of soul-searching”, she approached the agency in Dublin through which she was adopted.
“They couldn’t or wouldn’t help me,” she says. When they confirmed her file was there but they weren’t going to do anything with it, “I felt anger that I didn’t even know existed in me, not being able to get my birth cert.”
Through her own research, some of it online, she managed to find her birth cert in the General Register Office and from that track down her birth mother. She then contacted Barnardos for some advice about approaching the woman and they recommended that she do its four-week Exploring Adoption course for adopted adults.
“I was very reluctant to go on that course,” she says. “I didn’t want to go and talk about feelings and things with other adopted people. I thought it was going to be full of people who were really unhappy, but it actually wasn’t at all.”
One thing the course taught her was to take things very slowly. She wrote “a very strange, coded letter” to her birth mother who, although she had kept the adoption secret for the past 40-plus years, responded very positively. They are now corresponding but have not yet met.
“A lot of it for me was to find out where I came from; my background. I wasn’t looking for a big relationship,” says Janet. “I have found out the things I needed to find out – and luckily for me it was all quite positive.”
It would be great to meet her birth mother eventually, she adds, “but my life won’t be ruined if I don’t”. *Name has been changed