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.
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.”