Caitríona Palmer: ‘I am my mother’s secret child’
Adopted as a baby, the journalist embarked in adulthood on a difficult search for her birth mother. But when she finally met Sarah, things didn’t go quite as expected
Healing process: “I wanted people to understand the tragedy of the lives of these women,” says Caitríona Palmer. “I wanted there to be empathy and compassion.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Caitríona Palmer found out that she was adopted on her sixth birthday. Her mother, Mary, told her as they made her bed. It explained why Caitríona had been told she was special her whole life. From that moment a sense of incompleteness grew within her.
“That was a really indelible moment in my childhood,” the Washington-based Irish journalist says. “I guess I began to grieve the loss of my natural mother from that point onwards . . . But it was also disconcerting, because I was very safe and secure in the home where I was and where I grew up, and completely devoted to my parents, but I always felt as though a part of me was incomplete.”
At the age of 27 Palmer decided to look for her birth mother. She was working in Bosnia for Physicians for Human Rights, responding to press queries about the organisation’s exhumation and identification projects around mass graves discovered in the late 1990s.
After six months on the job she realised that it was not the dead she was having trouble adjusting to but the families of the missing, searching for their loved ones.
“In retrospect I’m amused at how it wasn’t more painfully obvious at the time. I was living this really grim life, meshed in the world of missing persons and dealing with these extraordinarily grief-stricken relatives of the missing. It was there that the penny dropped; it really made sense that I needed to find this missing piece of me,” she says.
Palmer found Sarah, her birth mother, through St Patrick’s Guild, the agency that had arranged her adoption. She has written a stark account of the meeting in her new book, An Affair with M y Mother, which tells their stories.
She writes that when they met she stood stock still as she embraced her birth mother, unable to cry.
“I was numb and full of second doubts. I was sure I wanted to look for her, and then, when that moment came, I realised I didn’t want to do it, which I now realise is very common. Other adoptees I’ve spoken to felt the same way,” says Palmer.
“I wanted to burst the fairy-tale bubble surrounding adoption reunions. I see a lot of it on reality TV in America, where it’s always portrayed as this almost Disneyesque moment, when in reality it’s traumatic. Certainly in my case it was traumatic and jarring, and I still, to this day, regret my demeanour in that moment, that I couldn’t cry or express real emotion.
“Looking back, I think I was just numb. That didn’t take away from my joy at meeting Sarah, but it just all felt too much.”
Palmer had told her parents, Mary and Liam, that she was meeting her birth mother – not to “would have been a slap in their face”, she says – but Sarah, who by this stage had a husband and children, had never told anyone she had put a child up for adoption.
Although Sarah ultimately told two of her children, her husband and wider family remain in the dark. More than 15 years later, Palmer remains Sarah’s secret child.
Kept in the dark
"It mostly makes me feel incrediby sad. It’s painful for my children to be kept in the dark. But now that I’m a mother I feel nothing but sorrow for Sarah, that she’s so constrained by the weight of the secret that she must still be living this double life. It fills me with sadness.
“At the end of the book I talk about my love for Sarah and how my door is always open, and I stand by that. I just wish that the affair could end and that she could release herself.”
Sarah, Palmer says, still feels as though she has done something terrible. Although we’re familiar with stories of women shamed for becoming pregnant outside marriage, of Magdalene laundries and of mother-and-baby homes, we tend not to realise that the shame and guilt don’t dissipate once the baby has been adopted.
“It’s a testament to the power of the times,” says Palmer. “Sarah once said to me that it was the worst thing that could have happened, that she felt she could have committed murder and it wouldn’t have been such a terrible stigma and shame.
“In this generation we forget how difficult it was for women back then, and how constrained their lives were, and how their moral and sexual lives were constrained by society.
“One of the things I was amazed by was how the State apparatus at the time kicked into gear when Sarah realised she was pregnant and that the State apparatus and society allowed for her to be hidden away. The National Maternity Hospital gave her a fictitious health certificate for an alleged kidney infection that allowed her take time off work. A Catholic charity sequestered her in the home of a kindly couple.”
Palmer became a mother herself more than a decade ago, when she gave birth to her first child, Liam. After that she felt she had a much greater understanding of what Sarah must have gone through.
“I finally got it. Holding Liam for the first time, and looking into his eyes, I had this almost shock force of connection and love. I realised in that moment that I would never let him go. It was just incomprehensible to me, in those first few days with Liam, realising that, two days in, Sarah would have had to hand me over.
“It really solidified my love for her, but it also confused me, because in that moment I could never have given up Liam, so how could she have done the same? The shaming of these women at that time must have been so enormous that she felt she had no other choice. That’s an extraordinary statement about Ireland and the legacy towards unmarried mothers.”
Treated like “a nonentity”
Even as an adoptee, Palmer felt she wasn't treated as an adult by many of the organisations she encountered while figuring out her own story and while writing her book. When she approached St Patrick’s Guild, the organisation from which her parents adopted her, about accessing her birth records, she says she felt as if she was treated like “a nonentity”.
“I felt like an infant. I think that’s the prevailing attitude, that you should let sleeping dogs lie. Why potentially wreck lives by going to search? Why knock on people’s doors? Why not let everything be the way it is? [Their position is that] I’ve had a wonderful life with wonderful parents and I’ve done well, and surely that should be enough.
“We’re not encouraged to search, and I think even now, with the current discussion on legislation into the opening of birth records, adoptees are considered children still, even though we’re grown adults.
“For an adoptee who has been kept out of the facts of their own life, even the minute details, even on the durations of the pregnancy or anything, it’s like gold dust. It really helps build a picture in your mind.
“I was desperate for those facts, and I was very frustrated by St Patrick’s Guild refusing to grant me access to those. It’s information only I need and that is of value to me,” she says.
Palmer felt a strong urge to tell her and Sarah’s stories. In writing the book, she says, she wanted people to understand the legacy for unmarried mothers in Ireland.
“I wanted people to understand the tragedy of the lives of these women. I wanted there to be empathy and compassion towards Sarah and all of the secret mothers, that they did nothing wrong and that the double lives they are leading are a great injustice.
“I would like some resolution for Sarah and for the other mothers. I just want Sarah to be happy, and I think that while she continues to keep this secret that happiness – real, complete happiness – will be elusive. I would just love to take away her pain.”
While Palmer has for years lived with being a secret, she would like the veil to be lifted for her children, and for Sarah. She’s not looking for closure for herself, she says. “The mere act of writing this book has healed many parts of me, I think. At the very beginning, when I set out to do this, many people said this would give me a sense of closure, and that was never my intention.
“There can be no closure, because the secret still exists and I’m still in the dark. However, it allowed me make sense of the pain of my life and of Sarah’s life. It allowed me weave a narrative out of the chaos, and I think that’s a privilege to be able to do that as a writer.”
An Affair with My Mother is published by Penguin Ireland