Tuesday 20 August 2019

My secret mother: How my reunion with my birth mother led to a different sort of pain

Caitriona Palmer's compelling memoir about finding her birth mother also tells the story of how a daughter's joy at a long dreamed of reunion led to a different sort of yearning and pain.

Mother's bond: Caitriona Palmer with two of her children, Caoimhe and Liam.
Mother's bond: Caitriona Palmer with two of her children, Caoimhe and Liam.
Caitriona with Philomena Lee, whose real-life story was made into a hit film
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was a moment Caitriona Palmer will never forget. She was meeting her mother in a Dublin city centre hotel, and when the pair spotted each other, Caitriona was stunned to find the usually warm Sarah blanking her. She would soon discover that at that very moment, Sarah had set eyes on an acquaintance in the lobby and didn't want to be asked awkward questions about who the younger woman was.

It wasn't the first time Caitriona would wish that she had a normal parent-child relationship with the woman who had given birth to her in 1972 and had immediately given her up for adoption. Instead, when she and Sarah met, the sense of something illicit going on was rarely far from the surface. Caitriona was happy to tell her family and friends about her real mother; Sarah hadn't told anyone that she had given birth to a child in early 1970s Dublin, and she certainly wasn't revealing to anyone that she would meet with her first-born whenever they could.

Washington-based journalist Caitriona, a regular writer for this newspaper, documents her experiences in a frank, just-published memoir, An Affair With My Mother. It's a book that offers a stark reminder that when birth mother and adopted child reunite after years or decades apart, the initial euphoria can subside quickly and profound difficulties can be just around the corner.

Caitriona was employed as a human rights worker in post-war Bosnia in the late 1990s and as she was helping families who had lost loved ones in the conflict, she became motivated to try to find her birth mother. She had known she was adopted since the age of six and although she felt deeply fortunate to have such kind and thoughtful adoptive parents, there was always a dull ache within her to reach out to her closest blood relation. She assumed the wait would last years, but thanks to a social worker at the adoption agency, Caitriona and her mother were reunited within months. Caitriona was delighted, yet apprehensive; Sarah was overjoyed to meet a daughter she had last seen for just two days 27 years before.

Caitriona learned that Sarah had lived in rural Ireland and had not been married when she became pregnant. The father wanted nothing to do with his child. She felt she had no option but to escape to the relative anonymity of Dublin and then give the baby up for adoption once it was born.

But Caitriona would soon learn that Sarah had never told anyone about the child she had given birth to in the still devoutly Catholic Ireland of the early 1970s. She told Caitriona that she had a husband and children but neither they, nor her friends, knew about her. It's a secret that remains.

Read More: 'I was adopted 41 years ago, and my heart has never healed'

So careful has Caitriona been to protect her mother's identity that 'Sarah', which she uses in the book, is not her real name. "I really don't want her to think that the book was an attempt by me to get her to tell her family about me," Caitriona says.

"But I wanted to tell my story and to show that there can be very complicated relationships when mothers and their children are reunited after so long."

The pain that Caitriona feels is exacerbated by the fact that she has not heard from her mother since Christmas Day, 2014. "We communicated by text message, but she hasn't responded to any of the ones I've sent since then. She wasn't in touch for my birthday last year, which hadn't happened since we'd made contact. I will text her on Mother's Day [tomorrow], but I don't know if I'll hear from her... it's like she fell off the face of the earth."

When she appeared on ITV's This Morning on Tuesday, host Phillip Schofield asked her what she wanted to say to her mother, should she be watching back home, and Caitriona said: "I would tell her that I love her... I wish her nothing but happiness."

Since beginning promotional rounds for her book, mainly in the UK to date, Caitriona's story has resonated with other adopted people who also found reunions weren't as perfect as they might have hoped. "I've been taken aback by it," she says. "There's so much sadness there, and I think what I've been saying has connected with others in a similar sort of situation. For me, it's validation."

Caitriona's sentiments echo with Sharon Lawless, who makes the popular Adoption Stories series for TV3. Now working on the fifth series of the show, she has been in contact with countless Irish people who have either sought their birth parents - typically the mother - or mums who gave up a child for adoption decades ago and desperately want to re-connect.

"The laws in this country, which are from 1952 and are completely outdated, make it very difficult to get information," she says. "The situation in Ireland is not like you'd find in Long Lost Family [the BAFTA-winning UK documentary series that helps adopted adult children make contact with their birth parents, and vice-versa] and that can be a shock for people."

But, Sharon says, many of those who do succeed in making contact can, like Caitriona Palmer, find they are not fully embraced.

"A woman who's the same age as me [48] had a baby and felt she had to give her up for adoption because of societal pressures in 1980s Ireland," she says.

"Years later, when she managed to make contact with her adult daughter, the great happiness she felt disappeared when she felt as though her daughter didn't really want her in her life. She had a great adoptive family and an amazing life, and her mother began to feel she wasn't being asked to events or kept up to date in important aspects of her life.

"The woman said to me that there was no role for her in her daughter's life and almost regretted having made contact with her."

Another anecdote recalled by Sharon Lawless demonstrates that the restrictiveness of the Ireland of years gone by can still hold some older people in its grip of shame.

"I know of a guy in his 50s who now has contact with his mother, who's in her 70s. They'll spend time together and might even have Christmas together, but she will never verbally say that he's her son. And that's not just to other people, this man hasn't heard her acknowledge who he is either. They skirt around it."

Today, the numbers of children born in this country and given up for adoption is virtually negligible, but it was a very different story right up until the end of the 1980s. In 1967, the record year, some 1,502 children born were adopted, a figure almost exclusively comprised of those born outside marriage. A Trinity College Dublin study on adoption in Ireland showed that in 1967, 97pc of all children from single parents were put up for adoption.

The proportion of children born out of wedlock - to employ that archaic term - has gone from 5pc in 1980 to almost a third of all births today, but the numbers facing adoption steadily decreased over that period - a direct result, surely, of the loosening grip of the Catholic Church and the growth of a more inclusive and permissive Irish society.

But societal pressures of yesteryear continue to reverberate for those people who seek answers today. Joanna Fortune, a psychotherapist who specialises in family matters, says we all have a fundamental need for a maternal bond, especially as young children. "You hear of children who go to loving adoptive families where they have great relationships with their parents and yet there's something missing. It's that pebble-in-a-shoe analogy."

A danger, and one that's perhaps unavoidable, is when the 'seeker' builds up an unrealistic picture of their parent or child. "The image they might have created in their minds over many years simply can't be matched when they meet the person," Joanna says. "It's impossible. And, for the adult children seeking their mother, the reasons why they were put up for adoption might be difficult to accept once they learn the facts."

Caitriona Palmer talks about a loved-up few months after she and Sarah first made contact, likening it to a honeymoon period, and Joanna Fortune says it's not unusual for adoption reunions to feel as such at first. "It's great when both people embrace the contact, but what's crucial is what happens next. It's about repairing relationships, rebuilding. It's probably unrealistic to expect to meet and simply get on like nothing has happened. Years have been lost, but that's in the past - it's what the future holds that's important, and both need to be mindful of that."

She says some people who seek contact can have their hopes dashed when they find their parent or child has died. And there's very real anguish in those instances where the relation being sought flatly refuses to meet. "It does happen and it can be incredibly painful, because it's like a further rejection. I think in those cases, it's important that the person seeks counselling. In fact, it's a good idea to have counselling anyway before that first meeting and in the period afterwards because talking to someone who's impartial and isn't a friend or family member can really help."

Despite the pitfalls, 'what-happened-next' instalments of both Long Lost Family and Adoption Stories suggest there are many happy relationships that have grown out of tearful reunions. Sharon Lawless has seen them with her own eyes and several feature in her book Adoption Stories. "I've witnessed so many happy people who have very strong relations with their birth mothers," she says.

"They've worked on it and their lives have been enriched so much by having each other in their lives. In several cases, there's been a really strong connection between siblings too - a lot of people are touched by adoption.

"One thing that strikes me time and again working on Adoption Stories is that primal bond between the mother and the child."

For those who have not been adopted, it may be difficult to grasp how life-changing it can be. The American writer AM Homes captures the experience powerfully in her memoir, The Mistress's Daughter: "To be adopted is to be adapted, to be amputated and sewn back together again. Whether or not you regain full function, there will always be scar tissue."

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