Life Family

Wednesday 18 September 2019

'Surely I was special enough not to be kept in the shadows'

Caitriona with Philomena Lee, whose real-life story was made into a hit film
Caitriona with Philomena Lee, whose real-life story was made into a hit film
John Meagher

John Meagher

Caitriona Palmer was adopted while still an infant by a kindly couple, Liam and Mary, and brought up in a happy household on the northside of Dublin. She writes about her childhood with great clarity - and honesty. But not everything was rosy. Knowing she had been adopted changed things.

"Beneath my polite veneer," she writes, "I was constantly on edge, terrified that if I allowed my people-pleasing mask to drop, somebody might discover the fraud lurking beneath. I felt lost in my own skin, neither Liam and Mary's child nor that of the woman who had given me away. Intellectually, even as a child, I understood why an unmarried Irish mother in 1972 might feel compelled to give her child away. But no amount of rationalisation helped. The facts were clear. My own mother had abandoned me. Perhaps I had not been good enough to keep."

Meeting her birth mother after 27 years helped make that feeling heal - at least at first. But Sarah's initial promise that she would tell her family and friends about Caitriona appeared hollow as the months wore on.

"There was always a reason to keep it inside. Once the kids are older, she'd say, then I'll tell. When they've left school. When my youngest goes to college. When they've all left home. Paralysed by my inability to confess how demeaning it was to be kept hidden, I acquiesced to her terms. Sometimes I have wondered whether, if Sarah understood the extent of my pain, she would tell her family about me. I'll never know, but I suspect not. The power of the secret was too great.

"I coached bemused friends on what to do should they run into me in the company of an older woman: smile, and keep walking. But the nature of my relationship with Sarah was hard for them to comprehend. 'She hasn't told anyone about you?' was the first thing friends asked. 'What is she afraid of?' I prattled off a list. She's worried that she'll lose her family. She's scared. She's still haunted by the stigma. It's easier for her to keep it under wraps."

But Caitriona was finding the secrecy hard to take. "By the close of that year I had come to detest the power imbalance in our relationship. I hated being invisible to her husband, and to her three children, half-siblings that I longed to meet. I felt Sarah had duped me when she said that she would spill the beans once she had come to terms with the reality of my being back in her life. Never did I expect that one year would turn into five, and five years into 10, and 10 into 15. Surely I was special enough not to be kept in the shadows for ever."

Caitriona says the anger about how she was being treated intensified after her first child - a son, Liam - was born. "I began to visualise myself as a baby," she writes.

"I noticed how Liam instantly stopped crying the moment I - not anyone else - picked him up. I imagined myself in the hours after my birth, nuzzling into Sarah. I envisaged what it was to hear - on April 19, 20 and the morning of April 21 - the heartbeat that had lulled me to sleep in the womb. Then I imagined what it was like, late in the day on April 21, 1972, to wake up alone, to cry for Sarah but to feel instead the starched white cotton of whatever maternity ward nurse picked me up. Where is my mother? I want my mother."

An Affair With My Mother is published by Penguin and is out now

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