When I was adopted from Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home in 1967, adoption was at its peak. Some 97 per cent of babies born to unmarried mothers that year were adopted. No one expected that we would grow up wanting and needing to find our mothers.
Like many adopted people, I spent years traipsing to social workers. I begged for information about my birth and adoption and was drip-fed morsels: my mother’s Christian name, my original name, the county she lived in. Each time, I was reminded about her right to privacy. The conflicting facts I was fed made it impossible to discern what was true. Eventually, I was informed that my birth mother had stated several years previously that she didn’t want contact. I was devastated.
When finally I held my birth certificate in my hand, I expected to feel different but it meant very little. It provided my birth mother’s full name, but I still didn’t know who I was
My need to know my identity didn’t go away as I grew older. My sense of emptiness only grew stronger. At last, frustrated and angry, I turned private detective. Pregnant with my third child, I trawled through registers in the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages. When finally I held my birth certificate in my hand, I expected to feel different but it meant very little. It provided my birth mother’s full name, but I still didn’t know who I was.
I needed to see my mother, and to hear about the circumstances of my birth. More years went by. I tried hard to find her and failed. Then 14 years after my first visit to the social worker, my birth mother agreed to contact. I was ecstatic.
She sent me letters which I read over and over, and slowly we got to know each other. In every letter she wrote, “we’ll meet some day, I promise”. I expected our reunion to happen quickly. It didn’t. She hadn’t told her husband or children about me. She had kept the secret of my birth and adoption for 42 years.
I couldn’t bear to live the rest of my life aware that I had siblings without letting them know I existed
After three years, her letters came less often then stopped altogether. I was desperately disappointed. I couldn’t bear to live the rest of my life aware that I had siblings without letting them know I existed. Deciding to contact them was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made but I felt I had to stand up for my five-week-old self, to gather her in my arms and reassure her she was wanted and loved.
The outcome was turmoil, shock, anger, grief, along with relief and joy. My sister was welcoming, accepting, understanding. My brothers didn’t want anything to do with me. My birth mother was distraught. But I have never regretted my decision.
In the coming months, other adoptees will find themselves in the same situation. The Birth Information and Tracing Act enshrines in law what adoptees have always known and felt, the importance of knowing our origins. From today, we’ll be able to apply for our birth and early-life information.
In the Contact Preference Register, an adoptee, birth mother or a relative of an adoptee can state their preference for contact. Even if a birth mother opts to have no contact, her identity will be shared with her child. In this case, the adopted person will be required to attend a meeting with a social worker to be reminded of their birth mother’s right to confidentiality – something that has always been deemed more important than an adopted person’s right to know who we are.
A refusal to have contact feels like a second rejection and touches our fear that we were and still are in some way fundamentally flawed. Like many adopted people I still carry a fear of abandonment. It was impossible for me to staunch my desire for genealogical connection, my need for acknowledgment. Being told my birth mother didn’t want to meet me didn’t make that disappear.
I still remember the shock of recognising myself in her face. We didn’t get back what we lost but I think we’ve helped each other heal somewhat
One very ordinary morning five years after I wrote to my siblings, my mother rang me. Her husband had died earlier that year without finding out I existed. A few weeks later I visited her. That was eight years ago. I still remember the shock of recognising myself in her face. We didn’t get back what we lost but I think we’ve helped each other heal somewhat. At last I know where I came from.
Being adopted, it turns out, is a lifelong process. It’s never over and done with. The impact of being adopted and the feelings of loss linger for our whole lives whether we’re aware of it or not. Holding my birth certificate didn’t explain who I was deep inside; neither did meeting my birth family. But they were vital steps in helping me to integrate the part of my life that had been hidden.
Only now are we beginning to acknowledge the trauma that adoption caused for mothers and their children. There’s no doubt that the months ahead will be an anxious and lonely time for birth mothers who have remained silent for decades. The anxiety, distress and discomfort which some may experience is not due, however, to a lack of understanding of the notion of privacy on the part of adopted people, nor to a disregard for their mother’s feelings. It’s the legacy of the Irish closed adoption system, which has always been mired in secrecy and shame. Openness is uncomfortable and messy and painful, but it’s also the path to healing.
My heart goes out to those who will receive the news that their birth mother has chosen not to have contact. The mean age of adoptees who applied to the Contact Preference Register in June of this year is 50. That’s a long time to wait to meet your mother.
Therese Ryan works in the field of personal development. She is writing a memoir of her adoption experience.