Babies in hospital

I WAS ‘RELINQUISHED’

The ABC current affairs program Four Corners featured a story this week on mothers who were forced to give their babies up for adoption in the 60s and 70s.

To say watching this program was fraught for me would be an understatement.

I was born in 1972 and ‘relinquished’ to be adopted by Mum and Dad. I watched the program grieving for these women mourning their lost children while wincing at the blunt force trauma these sorts of stories are for my mum.

I was, in essence, a virgin birth.

My birth mother “H” and father “L” were aged only 14 and 16 respectively. H hid the pregnancy until she fainted during the school’s cross country race when she was about four months pregnant.

The school’s nursing sister had a quiet conversation with my maternal grandmother who promptly burst into tears as it confirmed her unspoken suspicions.

H was promptly sent to Carramar, an Anglican single mother’s home on Sydney’s North Shore in the suburb of Turramurra. Her brothers were told to tell her friends that she’d gone to PLC Pymble, ironically the school I would attend a mere 10 years later.

In the meantime, L was expelled and the principal tried to have him charged with carnal knowledge. A childhood act of bravery years before won him a reprieve, the police refusing to charge him as he and a friend had witnessed a bank robbery and could identify the bandits.

Apparently L’s family had offered to keep me and raise me as L’s sister – something H relayed excitedly to her father.

He flatly refused on the grounds she had bought enough shame to the family already. Shame.

That word, so laden with guilt and wrong-doing and punishment is, in my experience, a cornerstone to adoption.

Shame on the single unwed mother. Clearly promiscuous and debauched and everything in between when in actual fact it was just a case of dumb bad luck. That, ovulation and sperm that could swim. Clearly.

Shame on the adoptive parents – often unfairly squared on the woman’s shoulders for being barren. Who knows what men of that era felt if it was their ‘fault’ they could not have children of their own.

Look at that: shame, barren, fault.

And in the middle there somewhere is a child. A life. A person.

If I recall correctly, there are higher rates of adopted people in prison. Higher rates of suicide, self-harm and mental health issues. There are higher rates of divorce in couples with adopted children. It’s like we’ve tapped into the motherload of human guilt and torment all from a system put in place to ensure the ‘best outcomes’ for the child. Social policy in the 60s and 70s has so much to answer for.

In New South Wales in 1991 changes were made to the adoption laws making it far easier for birth parents and adopted children to find each other. If you wished you could put a contact veto on your file but if you didn’t do so then it was possible for either party to get the original or corrected birth certificate and instigate a search.

I did this in 1993.

 

It was a whirlwind of adrenaline and emotion and excitement at meeting H and her family. Uncles! A baby half-brother! (who has just finished his HSC at the school my son Felix is now attending. I KNOW!) Meeting L and his family. A half-sister and brother! People who looked like me, who I was like, who ‘got’ me.

And then the sense of betrayal.

Mum was devastated I had found and met my birth mother.

She felt the law changes were the ultimate betrayal by the government to adoptive parents. That they had signed legally binding documents saying this child was theirs and here they were changing the laws so it was now more of a ‘kinda’ than a sure thing. She was so hurt.

The day after I had met H, mum went to work and had to face the blackboard all day because she couldn’t stop crying. (Both Mum and H are primary school teachers. They also went to the same teacher’s college.)

She told me once that her greatest regret in life was that she hadn’t actually had my brother and I herself.

The pain of not having children ‘of her own’, of the whole world that is desperately wanting to have children but not being able to is something I see in my mum every single day.

For nearly half the time I’ve known H we have lived here with mum and I realised last year how I had subconsciously put an arm’s length between me and H in respect to mum. A lot has changed in the last 12 months and I’m not willing to do that any more.

My mum is my mum. I am who I am because of the efforts my mum put into raising me. She will always, always, ALWAYS be Mum.

So how do you then explain the inextricable link I have to H and indeed to L?

I am such a blend of them both – creative, feisty, funny, a perfectionist and on it goes. And now with my own children – you could put H’s son next to Felix and simply think they were brothers. Oscar reminds me so much of L. You could put Jasper with my paternal cousin’s daughters and say he was their brother. It’s uncanny.

Biology is undeniable.

But I see the havoc my existence has wreaked on these lives – people and families changed forever and not necessarily for the better.

H, sent to the single mother’s home at 14, forbidden from seeing me, fighting a student doctor to pull down the pillow he was holding up to try and see me. Her parents being told the best thing they could do was pick her up and never mention it again.

Even though her brothers would catch the bus from Sydney’s northern beaches to the home to see her after school (no mean feat, even trying to do that today is ardous). Having a team of student doctors brought around after I was born and having them talk about her labour even though she wasn’t allowed to see, touch or hold me. Having the head obstetrician stand at the end of the bed and say she had had a “textbook” labour and that more people should have babies at 14. Being picked up by her parents three days after I was born and going immediately on their annual summer holiday. Having to lie on the beach IN A SWIMMING COSTUME on her stomach the entire time because her boobs were leaking. It just goes on and on.

And my mum and dad? Their marriage slowly disintegrating for myriad reasons but their inability to have children together penetrating all of it.

And what of me you ask?

I used to feel gravely responsible for the havoc my existence played on H and L and I still feel ‘weird’ about what impact my presence in their lives now, manifests. I used to strive to be good and better to make up for the fact I didn’t come from my mum’s belly. But now I’m not quite so tarred with the brush of being relinquished and adopted. My mum is my mum, H and L made me, I love having all of them in my life and I want them there for the rest of my life.

Dreadful things happened to some mothers during those years of peak adoption and wrongs need to be made right, but so much good also came from that time.

So many babies to couples desperate to have a child and raise a family. Many children so much better off to have been adopted than raised in a home where they weren’t wanted or were viewed as a constant reminder of shame brought to the family by a ‘naughty’ daughter.

Life is messy, people get hurt, awful things happen and sadness can prevail but in my experience good always comes from bad, and what doesn’t kill you can indeed make you stronger.

You can fall down seven times and stand up eight. From shame, guilt, fault can come bravery, strength and acceptance.

Onward.

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This article first appeared at allconsuming which is the blog of Kim Berry. “A glimpse into the world of one fertile and careless woman and the allconsuming mess that follows. It’s raising four boys, reconciling the special needs with the normal, being married to a Chef, living with your mother and a personal quest to see just how many loads of washing you can generate and wash in one day. There’s recipes, tragedy, tales of public humiliation, the occasional tirade and so much more.”

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23 Comments

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    Lisa Lintern

    What an amazing story that so eloquently shows the emotion felt from all angles.

    • Reply March 2, 2012

      kim at allconsuming

      Thanks Lisa. Every single story involving adoption is unique. This is simply mine.

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    MrsP2011

    As it turns out Kim, you are a blessing to all sides of your family.

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    blue

    And here’s another scary thing. I was ‘tricked’ into having an abortion at the age of 16. (I’m 56 now). The doctor was complicit, my parents had to be complicit (although they will not admit it) and the parents of the father of that possible child would have been complicit too, from what little I have been able to glean.

    I wonder how many times this happened. The thing is, I probably — I think — would have chosen to terminate that pregnancy if someone had thought to ask me. But I was deceived. And the deception hurts to this day. The loss of trust I held in regards to my parents was total.

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    Mp

    Amazing story. I’m curious- what is the relationship between relinquished children & the biological grandparents. If it was me I would struggle to have any respect for them.

    • Reply March 2, 2012

      Annie from Faulco

      Mp – Sadly, biological grandparents were a product of their society’s values and most likely the strictures of their church/es. Very few of them would have had the courage to stand up to THEIR extended families, either.

      A dear friend, born in 1940, was raised by her aunt and uncle, and believed her real birth mother was her aunt until she was in her twenties. Everyone in the small town knew the truth, but it was kept a secret. Her biological father, a respected business man, sacked his pregnant secretary for bringing the firm into disrepute, so my friend’s mother was sent away. Upon returning to the town, her mother was unable to find work, due to her reputation.

      My friend obtained her birth certificate and her suspicions were confirmed. Her biological father had died by then, and both her putative parents and her birth mother flatly denied to tell her the truth. It was not until after their deaths that some other townsfolk told my friend the truth. But her extended family continued to deny the truth until the day/s they died.

      Very sad. And particularly sad that such situations were not uncommon in those days.

    • Reply March 2, 2012

      kim at allconsuming

      It’s funny MP, my maternal grandmother grabbed me, told me she had always loved me and had never forgotten me. She still gets teary when she sees me. My paternal grandparents are just as open – apparently they used to bump into H’s mum down at the shops and ask about me, wondering where I was, what I was doing and if H would ever look for me.

      For me I don’t hold any animosity whatsoever to my maternal grandfather, he was simply responding in a way which was stereotypical of the time. My perception of how he feels about me ‘being back on the scene’ is one of discomfort however, that he’s somehow embarrassed? or at least uncomfortable at ‘my return’. H’s relationship with him has been very strained and while our reunion is not the root cause or main cause of this, I think it certainly plays a part.

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    blue

    Sorry Kim, I did not mean to distract from your story. Suddenly, those old feelings just welled up in me. But I am sorry if I changed the focus from your important story.

    • Reply March 2, 2012

      kim at allconsuming

      not at all Blue, we all have our story to tell. Life, it is just so messy.

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    Jenny M

    Thank you for sharing your story Kim, you are an inspiration. I heard of another story on radionational this morning, I am saddened every time. I dont mean to excuse ANYTHING that happened back then it was unacceptable bowever we have to acknowlege that the social norms of society were vastly different than today and we can’t keep beating up those parents who made those decsions, yes they were wrong but they took action like the majority did, it would have taken a brave father or mother to say “lets keep the baby” and most who did ‘keep the baby’ were raised as a sibling to the mother. Thank goodness for social progress and womens rights because I too could have been one of those mothers.

    • Reply March 2, 2012

      kim at allconsuming

      Exactly Jenny – I must say, I have a slow burn concern that – as the broader media is want to do – the story about adoption will be boiled down to another stolen generation. I think there is certainly a component of that but there were also myriad other scenarios being played out. Was H in any position to be making a call about whether she kept me or not? With me now having a 14 year old son I do not think so. Her parents – her father in particular – did what he thought was best for H and for the family. Sure, the language around that is loaded and emotive but I would argue the decision was made on the grounds of ‘what was best’ rather than some notion of ‘punishment’.

      As it was I was adopted by two loving parents and a mother who has sacrificed so much for me words will never do it justice.

      I have along history of chronic depression and if you threw a whole component of my life into that where I was being raised as someone’s sister only to discover they were my father, WELL! MADNESS AHOY!

      I found it very interesting that when the report was tabled in the Senate the other day they discredited the argument that it was a product of the attitudes of the era. I do think, however, there were some very specific cases of babies being taken against their mothers will, particularly in older ‘girls’.

      Oh man, see, this discussion has no end! I could go on and on.

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    bigwords

    Kim, I have just read this and your story is one which touches my heart immensely. Your writing is so beautiful to read, your story so powerful. Much love xx

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    Angela Savage

    Kim, thanks for sharing this remarkable story. You are a credit to everyone involved in making and shaping you.

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    Cat

    Oh Kim! What a beautifully written piece. I love the way you see life and I admire you immensely. You’re so right about social policies having a lot to answer for. Xxxxx

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    Mp

    You are a very forgiving person Kim! And Blue, I was also cornered into having an abortion. I cried every single day for 8 years, ended up doing a fantastic retreat which helped a lot. It’s a topic I dearly wish someone would cover. Sadly I don’t think I’m strong enough to put up with the inevitable lych mob that thinks I’m pushing an anti abortion wagon so I steer clear of that topic.

  • Reply March 2, 2012

    fiona

    Beautifully written Kim. I still get shivers when I think of that moment i guessed who your real mother was as you were telling me about her. It was extraordinary. And having heard the story of her being pregnant at school from her best schoolfriend, and then meeting you…it’s just amazing. You are a fantastic person, and so very admirable. And surrounded by such a special group of people.

    • Reply March 3, 2012

      kim at allconsuming

      Fiona, meeting you and the other guys who were around when it all happened has been so insightful and wonderful for me. Seriously. Wonderful, poignant and such an important part of my history.

  • Reply March 3, 2012

    melissa

    Very thought provocing Kim.
    I had a horrific childhood at the mercy of ‘ biological’
    parents for whom I feel absolutely no positive emotions , people whose memory sends a chill down my spine- I am now in my 40’s but I still dearly wish I had been adopted by loving parents. I’m intrigued by this concept of a biological connection. What was it that made you yearn to meet your birth parents?

    • Reply March 3, 2012

      kim at allconsuming

      Melissa, my mum’s one of six and my dad is one of three – I had big families around me and loads of cousins. But I never felt I belonged. I always felt ‘different’. I found it very isolating that I had cousins who looked like my mum and had traits like my mum that I didn’t and would never have. My perception of life in those families was that I was always viewed with a level of being an unknown quantity, the loose canon.

      Apart from all that I am a journo by trade so unanswered questions are simply not acceptable! I always knew I’d look for my birth parents, always. Weird huh. I know plenty of adopted people who have no desire to search and have never felt the way I did. It just reaffirms that every story is unique.

  • Reply March 3, 2012

    daniel

    This is such a wonderful, thoughtful, honest account. Thank you so much for writing it.

  • Reply March 3, 2012

    Kerri Saint

    As an adoptee who was taken I have worked hard to highlight that many adoptees were placed in homes where they were exploited and abused. I run a support and lobby group for these adoptees you will find snippet of our stories of what happened to us in the report . The truth is there were little or no screening of adoptive parents. There were deals done under the table and children went to homes where abuse and mistreatment were common. I was set to work in charocal pits from the age of five. Beaten, suffocted, set alight, and even tortured as a child by the hands of my adopters..This was supposed to be the better family…Trouble is I was being treated like scum because thats what they told me my mother was. The pressure from society to have children forced many to adopt when they did not want to and they clearly took their anger out on the children for being a reminder of their own failings. Time to release the carnage done to these poor children like myself, our stories are just as horrific as the Forgotten Australians.

  • Reply March 5, 2012

    Annabelle

    Kim, I love your story and your honesty and bravery! Bravo!
    This topic is finally getting some long-overdue sunlight! The more people share their amazing stories, in my opinion, the more it will help others who were innocently involved.
    The issue that really angers me is hypocritical attitudes towards sex. How wonderful it must be to be able to stand on moral high ground and look down on your sister/daughter/neighbour etc and feel so sanctimonious!
    It is wonderful that you have connected with your young parents H and L.

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