Saturday 16 December 2017

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

Caitriona, who was adopted as a baby with two of her own children, Caoimhe and Liam
Caitriona, who was adopted as a baby with two of her own children, Caoimhe and Liam

Caitriona Palmer

My heart broke this week when I read the words of acclaimed chef Kevin Thornton about the agony of relinquishing a child to adoption over 30 years ago.

"Your soul is torn out when your child is taken away," Thornton told The Herald. "My heart was broken."

Forty-one years ago in a Dublin city hospital, my tiny heart was broken too the day my birth-mother nuzzled me for the very last time and handed me over to a kindly social worker who spirited me away to a new life.

I was taken to a baby home in south Dublin where I joined dozens of squalling infants in steel cribs, row upon row of Ireland's illegitimate offspring, an untidy reminder to the Irish hierarchy that – despite their best efforts – the youth of Ireland persisted in having pre-marital sex.

I spent six weeks at the baby home before my adoptive parents, Liam and Mary, like knights in shining armour, drove up one summer night in a boxy red Hillman Imp to take me home.

They brought me to their tidy three-bedroomed semi-detached on the other side of the city, a cozy, warm house filled with two older siblings and an abundance of love. With an adoption order I became Caitriona Palmer, my brief previous life erased with the signature of a Dublin judge, my new identity forged.

I grew up the perfect child, determined to meet my parent's loving and realistic expectations, determined to be the best kid on the block. I fitted effortlessly into my new life, forging an unbreakable bond with my parents, embracing my privileged life.

But beneath the surface an aching hum persisted, a sense of constant uneasiness, a troubling sensation that I wasn't completely whole.

"To be adopted is to be adapted, to be amputated and sown back together again," wrote AM Homes in her searing memoir, The Mistress's Daughter. "Whether or not you regain full function, there will always be scar tissue."

My childhood couldn't have been any happier and yet I always felt that there was something missing. It doesn't take a degree in psychology to see how my little mind tried to cope with the confusion of adoption – I was infatuated with orphaned Paddington Bear and loved the musicals Annie and Oliver.

During my Oliver phase I would cry myself to sleep at night singing 'Where is Love?' I still, to this day, have a tendency for the melancholy. (Is there any wonder that I'm an obsessive Morrissey fan?)

I was told on my sixth birthday by my mother while we made my bed together (I had a Paddington Bear pillow case). I had always been told that I was "special" and that this moment clarified my suspicions that I was different to my siblings.

I dreaded my birthday, sometimes becoming irrationally angry, acting out in an outrageous fashion. My parents, devout Catholics, always encouraged me to pray for my birth mother on this day, a loving, meditative gesture that helped to ease the confusion and soothe the pain.

In 1998 when I was 27, living in post-war Bosnia and helping search for the dead of the 1992-95 war I had an 'a-ha' moment and began to search for my birth mother.

We were reunited some months later and embarked on a loving relationship that continues to this day. Our relationship is complicated; traumatised by my birth and relinquishment, my birth mother Sarah (not her real name) has yet to reveal my existence to her husband and children. Sarah is a real Philomena Lee, another unhappy example of the legacy of secrecy and shame surrounding Irish adoption.

But here's the rub. Despite having three loving parents in my life – my parents, Liam and Mary, and Sarah – the dull ache in my heart endures.

I am not my adopted parent's child, nor am I my birth parent's child. I float somewhere in between. An amalgam of the two, a hybrid human. There is nothing that my parents or Sarah can do to make that better. The scar tissue persists. That's the heartbreaking reality of adoption.

Caitriona Palmer is writing a book about her adoption experience

Irish Independent

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