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A Bond Unbroken
I know you exist by the letters and Christmas cards that I receive. But there is more than that. Under the surface behind the good daughter, good wife, good mother façade.
You gave birth to me.
We didn't meet then, that day in December 1970. I was removed from your body. That safe, loving, nurturing, warm place. So coldly and automatically. So involuntarily. Stolen from you. And you from me. Attachment forbidden. The connection severed, so was thought, by the physical and traumatic removal. All those lovely warm safe feelings displaced in an instant by fear, insecurity, rejection, anxiety. A trauma implanted into both of us. Never to be the same again.
We start our separate lives. Knowing each is out there. Not knowing if our lives would ever collide. Hoping. You try courageously to pick up the pieces of your old life, your inner turmoil and struggle concealed from all. You are alone to deal with your anguish. The pain so deep and so immense it amounts to a physical hurt. What is my pain like? How much emotional pain does a newborn feel?
The child, me, is given a new life. Like picking one off the shelf but with no instructions included. No genetic link. Given a new set of parents – picked off a different, unfamiliar, unconnected shelf. Like a puppy taken home from the pet store, can its new parents fulfill all its needs as completely as its birth mother? When the puppy looks at its new ‘parents’ surely it wonders why there are so many physical and behavioural differences.
Years pass. Does your pain diminish? Do you find contentment? Do you find peace within yourself? Or do you live burdened by your secret, by your self imposed shame?
We met once in a park, a beautiful sunny August day in 1996. A chance to finally introduce ourselves. An opportunity to at long last say hello. How strange. A mother and her daughter saying 'hello' 26 years after spending just a precious nine months sharing the same body. Looking each other in the eyes for the first time. Feeling a connection. A strong connection!
Something unexplainable and unexpected. The bond between mother and child. Unable to be severed. Unable to be denied.
Today, nine years later, although in irregular contact though letters, we are still finding each other. Even though I know where you live I am still searching for you, my birth mother. Yearning for our lives to be reconnected. To what degree, is unknown. Wanting, needing, to explore more thoroughly the genetic and emotional connection which binds us.
A connection not completely severed by that initial heart wrenching separation 34 years ago.
The Bunyip Story
by Trevor Jordan
One of my favourite Australian children's picture books is by Jenny Wagner (illustrated by Ron Brooks) called The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek.
Late one night, a bunyip comes out of the murky mud in the billabong at the bottom of Berkeley's Creek.‘What am I’, it asks the various animals of the forest. ‘What do I look like?’ Of course, many simply run or swim away in fright. Others tell him the truth as they see it: he is a bunyip, and bunyips are horrible, ugly creatures. He meets a scientist, who without even bothering to look up from his notebook and pencil tells him emphatically that bunyips do not exist. Finally, he dejectedly wanders off until he finds another billabong and sits down beside it. Something stirs in the murky depths, and out comes something large and muddy. ‘What am I? What do I look like?’ it asks. The bunyip is ecstatic. ‘You look just like me’, he shouts. And he lent her his mirror to prove it.
This story reminds me of a workshop activity designed to help adoption professionals, and others who are not adopted, feel what it would be like to grow up adopted. It goes like this. Get hold of mirror and look at it. As you look at yourself, name the various facial features that you inherited from members of your family. You might say, I have my mother's nose, my father's chin, or Aunty Ethel's hair. Now, turn the mirror over. This is what an adoptee sees when he or she looks in the mirror.
For many, the experience of search and reunion is like that magical, healing moment where we crawl out of the murky depths of our individual lives and ask, ‘What am I? What do I look like?’ And there, waiting for us on the bank is another creature willing to lend us their mirror and shout, ‘You’re a bunyip! You look just like me!’
I sure am grateful for the day my sister crawled out of her billabong, wondering if there was anyone out there that looked or felt like her, so I could lend her my mirror.
The Family Quilt
by Jo Sparrow
Teresa watched her family closely to find her niche amongst them. It seemed she observed people in a different way to everyone else, allowing millions of tiny antennae to sprout from her body. A sensory anemone, her feelers swept around them, feeling, intuiting. She absorbed words and tones, scanned for undertones, things left unsaid that revealed more than words uttered.
Sometimes her interpretations satisfied a curiosity, or built on an established instinct. These discoveries tasted sweet, saccharine and biting but were a gratifying treat. Sometimes the flavour was sharp and bitter, leaving her with a sour, stale taste and feeling confused, stifled and unanchored. It didn’t stop her though, like an addict she always went looking for more information. Her family confused her. People perplexed her. Most often she drew her antennae back in, feeling alienated.
She could see the golden threads securing her family when they came together in the afternoon shade on steamy long weekends or holidays to sip icy drinks and enjoy each other. Deceptively powerful, the gossamer threads sparkled and glowed, gaining strength when her family finished each other’s sentences or laughed easily at shared memories and stories.
Teresa watched a glinting thread emerge from her sister’s mouth and waft on the breeze to slip around her brother’s wrist. She stood, chasing the string like an escaping balloon, catching it between her fingers, turning around and around to wind the thread about her waist, an attempt to anchor her within the family web.
When she looked down though, the thread was gone. Her t-shirt hung loose and unbelted. It was a slight of hand, a magician’s illusion. The thread had continued on to its original destination, not to be interfered with by Teresa or any other interloper. The threads continued to shoot and anchor all afternoon, firming when they found a hold.
Teresa tried trickery and ruse to fool the threads into including her. She laughed when her family did and attempted to join conversations. She sat on her sister's lap, purring while she sang the Flower Pot Men song and called her ‘little weed’. She hoped the threads would mistakenly lasso her into the famiily, but they weren’t to be fooled, wafting up on the wind and finding another course, bypassing her.
When the mosquitoes arrived to herald an end to the afternoon with skin slapping and raised red lumps, the threads were weaved tight, into an elaborate quilt. Teresa realised she could climb up and ride the quilt and be carried inside with her family, but she could never find her way into the pattern.
It remained a mystery to her, not hostile, not unwelcoming, just impossible to penetrate.
Being told at six years of age
by Michelle McColm
I always knew I was adopted.
My adoptive parents talked about it, and read a book about adoption to me when I was a child of six.
I’m sure in the back of my mind, even then, I knew the adoption book left something out – it said my parents were happy to adopt me, but what happened to my other mother? I always wondered about my birth mother; and whether or not she ever thought about me.
As a child, I knew I must have been really horrible, or else why would my own mother give me away and never want to see me again?
by Judith S Gediman & Linda P Brown, Birth Bond (1991)
An adopted person wrote the following poem. As the poem tells us, when it comes to siblings, adopted people have a confused but full house.
There can be brothers and sisters by birth (both full or half), and brothers and sisters by adoption (who may or may not be the biological offspring of the adoptive parents).
If you are 26 years old
and had 1 mother who gave
birth to you
but then was taken away and
married someone else and had
1 daughter and 1 son
Plus you had 1 father who
married 1 woman who was
pregnant with 1 child that
was not his,
but then had 2
daughters after that
who were and then
woman and had 1
If all that happened,
you had another
mother and father
who knew and who
lived in a house that
you lived in also who
then had 2 sons;
How many mothers, fathers,
brothers, sisters half
brothers, half sisters,
aunts and uncles do you
have including the ones
you haven’t met yet?
Finding a brother or sister you never knew can be as significant as finding a parent.
Especially in cases where the birthmother is deceased, reunions between adoptees and their birth siblings become paramount. Sibling reunions can also be a substitute for meetings between adoptees and birthmothers if the birthmother is alive but refuses to meet. Why should she have the right, adoptees ask, to prevent me from knowing her other children, my own brothers and sisters?
There are situations in which the desire to discover and connect with siblings is what initiates the search. One woman, thirty-two, started to search after watching her own children play together and wondering if she too had any such connections. Adoptees who know about siblings they’ve never met often have compelling desires to meet them. Many of those who lack the knowledge ponder the possibility.
Connection with a birthparent means filling a void, but connecting with a brother or sister is a bonus. If the adoptee grew up as an only child, finding a sibling can be especially meaningful.
It sometimes happens that reunions take place between siblings who actually spent a few months or years growing up together. It is possible that the older child remembers when they were separated; or, if not that, remembers when the mother was pregnant with the baby who was subsequently adopted.
Because relinquishments generally result from unwed mothers giving up infants, brothers and sisters in reunion are usually meeting one anther for the very first time. The absence of a shared upbringing does not preclude the strong, even instantaneous, kindred feelings.
Shared hereditary often creates felt ties of its own, and sudden siblings can feel connected to one another from the outset … “They were immediately all pals.” Indeed, we have heard stories about birth siblings raised apart who, on meeting as young adults, felt closer to one another than they ever did to their adoptive siblings.
It can be that siblings who meet appear to have an easier time for several reasons. First, the relationship is less likely to be derailed by unresolved issues. Second, the individuals are closer in age (the same generation anyway) and grew up in an era when the prevailing attitudes about sex were more relaxed and accepting than in the birthmother’s era. Third, family size and composition can work in their favour. If the birth family is large, for example, one more brother or sister can be accommodated with relative little fanfare – “With five kids already one more was okay.”
Or if the family is small, the adoptee may encounter an only child who always wanted a brother or sister, or one who always wanted an additional sibling of which ever gender was lacking.
My story of hope is about being an adult adoptee. I use the word ‘adult’ to reinforce the fact that I am over 18, have a driver’s licence and a passport and I’ve worked in management for over 15 years. I was adopted through Queensland’s Department of Families, in 1959 when I was two weeks old.
I started the search for my biological parents when I was nineteen. I thought all I had to do was say I wanted to be found and my birthparents would be waiting for me. Like the doggy in the window, here I am, pick me. I joined Jigsaw Qld Inc, an organisation for the benefit of all parties involved in the adoption triangle. During the 80s I went to meetings in Brisbane. The members of Jigsaw lobbied for Adoption reform in the late 1980’s. Then in 1990, success! - the Queensland Adoption legislation changed. At last the information I needed to put my family back together was available. There was a six months legislative wait then I sent off my application form.
I waited and waited and waited… finally I phoned. The six months waiting period gave my birthmother time to complete the form “objection to information and/or contact”. I was to have no information, and worse, if by a miracle I had her name and address I could be but in prison for up to 2 years with a $6,000 fine if I made contact. I was devastated. All hope gone, no chance ever of putting my family back together. The hopelessness of the situation overwhelmed me. Rejection again, but this time as an adult and impossible to deny, but deny it I did. Turning to addictive behaviours and bitterness I closed my heart to the world. “I’m okay, I don’t need anyone!”
Every couple of years the media would pick up the adoption issue and I, like many others, would write letters to the current Minister begging for change to the legislation. Eventually the Queensland Government agreed to conduct a review. Hope at last! Another chance to attain the unattainable. But at the end of the review there was no change to the objection clauses in the 1990 legislation, which means the objections currently in force are to remain.
In 1997 I visited the department with a friend. I put a letter on file addressed to my birthmother; the department could contact her because she had ticked the ‘yes’ to contact. I was given a copy of my adoption file excluding identifying information. Included was the objection form completed by my birthmother in her handwriting. Wow! For the first time I believed I existed and belonged to the human race. I was born of woman; I wasn’t an alien. I didn’t know that’s how I felt until this proof was in front of me.
Late in 2002 my birthmother asked for the correspondence I’d put on file with the department. Again Wow! After all this time, I sent off a new letter and photos of me as a child then waited. I didn’t have long to wait this time. I now have letters and a photo of my birthparents together when they were young. I look like my birthparents and they like me do not have two heads. I don’t understand the need for secrecy, as it hasn’t done anything worthwhile for me.
Life is a process and one of the constants in life is change. The legislation will be reviewed again in 5, 10 or 30 years, but if the objection part of the legislation doesn’t change, or my birthmother doesn’t take back her objection, I’ve changed. I have a personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as my saviour and friend. What was important to me yesterday doesn’t seem so important now. I thank my birthmother for giving me life. Because where there is life there is hope.
From Fragmentation to Wholeness
by Victoria F
I grew up with the understanding that I was living with my birth parents and never really questioned this, as I could see some physical resemblances to my mother and cousins. I seemed to be very different from other family members however but just saw myself as an 'odd one out'. Being an only child reinforced that as well.
At age 15, in my quest to find part time work, I asked Mum for my Birth Certificate, to which she replied that it had been lost years before. I was determined to look for it. Surely it would show up. So I searched the house when my parents were out and I found divorce papers that were a shock to me. I had never been told they had been previously married. I tried to broach the subject on their return home and was met with equally shocking news that I wasn't expecting! My parents sat me down and shared the whole story ...
I was dumbfounded and felt betrayed all these years - that all I knew was a lie. Everyone in the family shared a secret that I was locked out from.
I had been given up for adoption at age three.
My mother was an alcoholic and wasn't up to caring for me, so on the advice of a 'boyfriend' at the time, was 'up for grabs' or so it sounded to me. My father's sister had given birth to a girl before marrying and had adopted her out into the 'system' and had since discovered that she was unable to bear another child. So, they had me sent to Penang, Malaysia after doing the paperwork, and I arrived in Butterworth where my adoptive Dad was working with the Australian Air Force. I remember waking up surrounded by toys as if this was when my life really began.
I seemed to adjust over time to this strange 'altered reality' and got on with training to do Graphic Design after leaving school. I recall one day at my workplace listening to a story about people's adoption stories and mulling things over as I worked. The phone rang and it was my mother asking me if I could come with her to meet her birth daughter. She had found ‘my Mum' and wanted to meet her!
It felt as if my world had fallen in as suddenly I was to be 'replaced' by this 'real' daughter. I felt as if I had been the replacement and was no longer needed. It was as if the last few years of 'coping' with my newfound role in life had hit home all at once.
I agreed to meet this person and support my Mum, and realised upon meeting her, how fragile her own position was and could see myself in a different light. I was the one who had Mum's love all these years and really belonged with her and Dad. This woman was on the 'outside' to Mum's life and seemed to belong to her own adopted family.
A few years later, weeks before my first wedding, my (adoptive) Mum rang to tell me that my Birth Mother wanted to meet me. What timing! Suddenly this 'stranger' wanted to be at the centre of my wedding, complete with my newfound half-sister and children. A great way to add stress to one's wedding arrangements! As a result, I had my Adoptive Mum's daughter, my Birth Mother, half-sister and family all meet on my wedding day - with other family members and friends confounded over who was who!
It was nice to know I had been loved by my Birth Mum and could see similarities between us, but life became fraught with complications once my new family came onto the scene!
There has been so much happen in the meantime, with many years past and both of my mothers now passed away, and having a family of my own.
I felt that as an artist there must be a way to express some of these events in my life, to be both a catharsis and also a point of identity for others who may have had similar experiences.
Through being given money through the RADF (Arts Funding), I have been able to do much reading about Adoption Issues and people's stories, and compiled these to form a basis for a series of paintings entitled "From Fragmentation Towards Wholeness - Adoption Journeys." I have held one exhibition of this work and hope to exhibit the work more widely in the hope of extending awareness and understanding of the impact these experiences can have in our lives.
Thank you to Jigsaw's Mother's Group
At 15 I discovered I was pregnant. I loved my boyfriend but wasn’t looking forward to telling him or my parents. We planned to tell them Sunday morning. My boyfriend was sleeping in the downstairs bedroom but before he could get up, my very intuitive father had guessed and took a shotgun to him. Fortunately, sense prevailed and we all sat down to talk. Although not a staunch Catholic, abortion was not for me. We decided to keep the baby. My16th birthday, three weeks later, was a very strained affair.
It wasn’t long before we had set up house and were ‘playing’ happy families but unlike fairy tales there wasn’t going to be a ‘happily-ever-after’. Standing on my feet for eight hours a day at a check out did nothing for my blood pressure or varicose veins and I gave up work at 30 weeks. About two weeks later, after being home for 13 hours-a-day by myself, everyone else was either at school or working, I guess I must have become a bit clingy. It was at this time that my boyfriend decided we should give the baby up for adoption. I was devastated. I gave him the silent treatment for three days and spent a lot of that time alone – pondering my child’s future. I knew I could make a good mother, but if his father was withdrawing his support, what future could I offer my child. My parents both worked full-time, most of my friends were still in school or working full-time themselves.
I made the decision to give my child up for adoption. We stayed together for another couple of years but it wasn’t long before our loss wedged between us and we separated. I carried my loss around me with a harsh, stern anger.
I went into an abusive relationship as I believed I didn’t deserve anything better and second best was better than nothing. Fortunately with some loving friends I turned my thinking around and left. It wasn’t too long before I met my husband and married a year later. Within the year I was pregnant and I was over the moon, but 10 weeks later I miscarried. Once again I was devastated.
It was about this time, 1992, that I learnt the adoption laws had changed and it was possible, if all parties agreed, for birth parents and adoptive parents to write to each other. After some enquiries I discovered there had been a letter waiting for me for 2 years. The same month and year my brother suicide, my son’s family and I became part of a pilot program. We corresponded from when he was 7 through to 18.
It was Michael’s (my birth name for him) eighteenth that bought me to Jigsaw's Mother's Support Group. I had so many feelings and emotions that I had no control over.
I went to that first meeting believing I didn’t belong there because I wasn’t forced to give up my child for adoption, like I believed most of the other women were. Therefore, I wasn’t worthy of feeling any sense of loss or pain. These other women at the meeting were far more worthy than I was.
In my eyes I was once again second best but I sat in the first meeting and discovered their pain and feelings mirrored my own. For the first time in 18 years I could communicate openly. Women of all ages shared the same pain and loss. When I spoke there were nods around the room … I knew then, that I had come home.
Over the next two years I religiously attended Saturday monthly meetings. I learnt many, many things with the love, support and guidance of these women, but mainly from the Jigsaw facilitator Jenny. She once said to us, “Reunion does not cure adoption!”. But I was a classic case. I of course knew better and that it did, it must do. But once again I learnt the hard way and Jenny’s words came back to me many times.
I haven’t been to a group meeting in nearly two years as in the last 18 months I have suffered five losses. My husband, my marriage, my home and my grandmother and the last and the hardest loss, my beloved father, one month ago.
Throughout this entire time, the one thing that helped me cope was the work that I’d done with Jenny and the mother’s group at Jigsaw. Dealing with my adoption issues of grief and loss helped me enormously to cope in what I can only describe as a horrendous two years.
My issues with Michael have taken second place. At 22 he has issues and priorities of his own and unfortunately I don’t seem to be one of these. So once again, ‘I have come home’ to the loving embrace that is Mothers (Group Meetings).
Without consent...My Mum's Story
My adoption was forced. There was no way it could have been anything but forced.
Since meeting my mum five years ago, we have had heart breaking conversations about her pregnancy and my birth. She had no voice then. And sadly, even now, she cannot find her voice.
She still lives with so much shame and regret about the past…56 years later. So I’ve decided it is vital to tell her story…our story. I will be her voice.
I will start with excerpts from the first letter my mum wrote to me before we re-united in 2015.
“I was married when I was 18 and my husband was 19. My first daughter was born a year later. Two years later when I was four months pregnant with my son my husband was tragically killed in an accident. There was no compensation for his death and my life became a living hell. I was fortunate enough to have loving parents so I went back home. my son was born five months later. At that time the widow’s pension was so pathetic that I was forced to return to work. Four years later I met your father. We had a brief affair but when I told him I was pregnant he didn’t want to help. Maybe he was married, I don’t know. The thought of going back on the pension was terrifying. Trying to survive on a single wage paying all the bills just about put me over the edge. My brother drove me to a place to have a termination but I couldn’t go through with it. I finally hoped some kind and loving couple would give you what I couldn’t. You sound a very loving and understanding person and I am sorry to have missed knowing you. I hope one day we can meet in the future.”
Then came the day we were re-united in April 2015. It seemed very important to my mother that she told me her story in detail. Once she started to speak there was no holding back. She told me she was left alone to labour in a room with no windows. She completely lost sense of time and didn’t know if it was night or day. She said that she was treated like an animal. “I guess that’s what we deserved” were her actual words.
Immediately after I was born, she asked if she could see me and hold me. She was told no and was held down while I was taken away from her. As my mum told me this part of her story she wept uncontrollably and then crumpled into my arms. We both ended up sliding down onto her kitchen floor, shaking and crying and holding each other.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry” she kept saying. “Please forgive me”.
As I write this I am crying. I strongly suspect this was the first time she had ever told anyone the true extent of her traumatic experience. Oh how I wish I could turn back time. How I wish she had been given the opportunity to keep me. I wish she had been told there were other options. I wish she had been offered love & support from her family. I wish she didn’t contemplate killing herself during her pregnancy with me because she felt so alone and betrayed.
If only she and other women in her situation had been treated with the respect and dignity they deserved from the government, the medical staff, institutions and organisations that took part in this hideous process, along with the cruel and misguided society of the era.
And that is why I have shared her story. So she can now finally be heard.
What is Real?
by Kris Downey (Jigsaw Pieces, Adoption Jigsaw WA)
We’ve all heard, “You don’t know what you have until you lose it.” But what about those of us who don’t know what we have lost because we never had it?
In many ways my experience as a birth mother has put me in the latter category. I lost the right to be a mother to my first born. That loss is obvious. But what about the loss of joy at being a grandmother? Now that I’m a grandmother – twice – I have this hollow feeling, like a hole waiting to be filled. It’s the same hole I lived with about motherhood until I became a real mother (in society’s eyes) when I had my daughter. Is that when I’ll become a real grandmother too; when my daughter has children? What does that make me now? There are no easy answers.
I cannot speak for other triad members but it seems they are also caught up in this reality blur. When do adoptive parents become real parent? The day they sign the papers, or is it after years of living as parents? Do they earn parenthood or is it bestowed upon them? Are birthparents sometimes a threat because they may not feel real enough deep down?
And what about adoptees? Do they feel they are a real part of their adoptive families? Or are their real families out there somewhere? If they accept or don’t accept their birth families, does that make them any less their real family?
It seems the losses resulting from adoption blur the distinction between real and unreal in a lot of areas in the lives of those affected. The one thing that’s certain is that we are all REAL people forcing REAL issues to the surface.
That doesn’t mean we have solutions, just hope.
I look Asian, but I'm an Aussie
by Analee Matthews
I thought I might share with you, the example I use when discussing adoptee issues with prospective adoptive parents, to describe what it’s like as an inter-country adoptee. I’d be interested to receive your thoughts on this very simplistic analogy:
“Let’s pretend everyone here lives in NSW and drives a car with NSW registration plates. So you drive around with these number plates and you feel great because you’re a local and you live here in NSW and your registration plates confirm that to anyone who sees you on the road but doesn’t know you.
But then one day, your car needs to go into the mechanic and the mechanic gives you a courtesy car that has QLD plates. And you have to drive this car around for, let’s say a week. So for one week everyone in NSW who sees you on the road and who doesn’t know you personally, assumes you are from QLD.
How do you think you might feel with people making that assumption about you? Special? Proud? Novel? Mysterious? Ashamed? Embarrassed? Compelled to explain the real story to people?
And what if the mechanic then phones to say that your car was unfixable and you’ll have to drive around with the courtesy car forever? What do you think you might want to do?
Registration laws aside, would you accept it and learn to live with people assuming and judging you based on the registration plates? Or would you change them over to reflect who you really are?
For many, being adopted from one culture into another is like living with someone else’s number plates. We look like we belong to one culture, so people who do not know us assume we do, when in fact, we actually belong to another.
I look Asian but I’m an Aussie. On the outside I look Asian, but on the inside I feel like I’m a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed surfie chick.
So you can imagine the turmoil some adoptees have trying to establish a smooth and comfortable link between how they look and how they feel; and this confusion is compounded when the adoptee has grown up with no pride attached to their birth culture or country.”
To An Adopted Baby
by Collette (Carol Ann)
How can I tell this precious dream of mine,
Whose little arms so trustingly entwine
Themselves around my neck and round my heart,
That at her dawn of life I played no part?
How can I tell her that her first small tear
Was shed in truth, when I was nowhere near.
To comfort her, as only mother can,
According to the great maternal plan?
Dear child, forgive me for my small deceit
To hear you lisping “Mummy” was so sweet
And anything on earth that I can do,
I swear I will, to make it up to you.
This precious piece comes from a very old English (UK) magazine and was lovingly cut out and kept secretly by my mother…only to be discovered this week, some eight months after her death.
It’s fair to say that she really did carry this close to her heart and reading it today gently reminds me of the secret pain she carried along with all the love and dreams she held for me, and my other adopted sister.
I can only wonder how much lighter her journey may have been if 60 years ago there had been as much information and emotional support as is available today. Thank you Jigsaw for your regular support group meetings, they offer a way for us all to know ourselves and others better.
The Mother I Can't Forget
by Sue Currie
“I had twins, didn’t I?” she whispered as we waited for her train home, back in late 1964.
“Yes”, I said. “Two identical little boys with red hair like yours.” Her brown eyes searched my face for more clues, the first time she had given me eye contact since her admission to Maternity a week before.
“Your babies weighed four and a half pounds each. They’re in an isolette together and they’re doing fine”, I told her. “We call them Peter and Paul”.
“What will happen to them?” she asked.
“They’ll be adopted. A nice couple without any children has already been in to see them.”
“Thanks.” She climbed into the train and was gone from my life, but not my memory.
I do not remember her first name, only her surname. I clearly remember that brief exchange just before noon at the train station so long ago because as a student midwife I had ‘accidentally’ delivered her first twin.
"It was 1.30pm on a warm Wednesday afternoon when I came on duty for my shift in the Labour Ward.
There were three delivery rooms in a row. All of the senior medical and nursing staff were busy with a breech delivery in the middle room and the one on the left was occupied by a woman in early labour. Breech babies were not automatic Caesarian Sections back then.
The sister in charge told me to admit the new patient into the room on the right. Whilst I prepared her for delivery, I tried to obtain a history of her pregnancy. Like many young, unmarried women in those days she had received no ante natal care.
She had left her home town several months before…when she began ‘to show’. The most I could extract from her was a soft yes or no as she avoided my eyes. Shy and seemingly embarrassed, she had waited until her labour was well-advanced before coming into the hospital.
She lay on her back with her eyes tightly closed whilst the junior Resident Medical Officer (RMO) palpated her abdomen to discover the position of her baby. Her tummy was not particularly large and this was in the days before ultrasound and electronic foetal heart monitors were used in most regional hospitals.
The doctor was satisfied that the baby’s head was fixed in the mother’s pelvis and that the labour was progressing normally. He made a small cross in blue biro on the patient’s skin above where he had located the baby’s heartbeat and then left the room, asking me to call him when she was ready to push.
I monitored her contractions and listened to the baby’s heart sounds every ten minutes. The contractions were strong and frequent, but she didn’t make a sound.
She was in her late teens, her face was pale, her dark red hair lay damp and limp on the pillow and her eyes remained tightly closed. My attempts to talk to her were met with silence, although she co-operated with position changes when I asked her. I suppose that’s why I cannot remember her first name. I never got to know her. None of us got to know her.
Within an hour she wanted to push. I called the RMO and we positioned her on her back. He asked me to scrub for the delivery.
The baby was born surprisingly fast for a firstborn. I stood near the foot of the bed holding a pale, limp baby boy by his ankles so mucous could drain from his nose and mouth. I was thinking, “Gosh, he’s small” as I looked down and saw a tiny blue hand protruding from the mother’s birth canal. I let out an exclamation and the doctor saw it, too. Pandemonium ensued.
Senior staff rushed in from the breech room and the RMO scrubbed hastily to deliver the second baby. (Student midwives were not supposed to deliver twins). ‘My’ twin was taking a long time to breathe and another doctor grabbed him from me and commenced resuscitation.
The second twin was born quite easily in spite of having his hand in front of his head. He was blue and still. The doctors worked frantically on both babies and eventually had both of them pink and crying after what seemed to me like forever. They were whisked away to the nursery in an isolette whilst their mother lay, virtually forgotten, staring at the ceiling.
I washed her after everyone had gone. She did not speak; neither did I. We both had eyes full of tears but neither of us knew what to say.
The babies were-tube fed for a few weeks until they were strong enough to take bottles. They thrived and became the darlings of the nursery. I had a special proprietary feeling about them. I would hurry into the nursery at the start of each shift to say hello to them and check on their progress.
Their mother was placed in the corner bed near a window in a room with five other women who had their babies with them—perhaps a policy of silent rebuke? She was given an injection, male hormone tablets and a tight breast binder to dry up her milk.
Each time we approached her she turned her face to the window. We were young and inexperienced, not much older than she, and nurses were not educated about the emotional care of their patients in those days. We felt discomfited by the wall of silence she built around herself, so we left her alone. I don’t remember seeing social workers or any other counsellors in the hospital, but somebody must have arranged the adoption, presumably without the mother’s consent.
Several weeks after she went home, a well-dressed couple, twice her age, came in to collect the twins. I was relieved when I heard they were taking both babies (there was no guarantee that twins would go to the same home back then).
I have thought about that young woman many times over the years, especially after I became a mother. As societal attitudes have changed I’ve had to acknowledge that I unwittingly participated in one of our society’s cruellest punishments for women who gave birth outside of marriage.
I wish I could tell her how sorry I am.
Sometimes it takes just one person
by David Cullen (David is a successful businessman and is married with four daughters.)
I was adopted at birth in 1971, the biggest year on record for adoptions. As my mother was only 13 when she fell pregnant with me and my Father was 16, I was adopted out as it was in those days.
I was adopted to a Panel Beater and his wife. I just remember walking home from the bus after school and seeing the for-sale sign on the house and removal van in the driveway and I started to cry wondering what was going on. My Adoptive Father moved out leaving me and 2 younger children with my Adoptive Mum. He was an acholic and lived for the drink.
We moved around and I think I went to numerous different schools and I cannot remember all of them, but when I turned six the courts gave me back to my adoptive father, who had married, along with the other two children. I was not part of their plan but came along with the package deal at the time.
It wasn’t long before I was locked in cupboards and shower rooms and beaten, put through walls, sleeping in my own urine. I still wet the bed every night until I was nine. I weeded the garden at 5am in the morning and spent weekends working, cleaning and not being allowed to watch TV and constantly hungry.
I was dressed in clothes from rags and handmade school uniforms. I was the last one to have a bath and it was in everyone’s else dirty water and it was cold. I did the dishes and was sent to bed early. I was hit with belts and dog chains for not cleaning the dishes properly and I was a kicked around the back yard for not weeding the gardens properly.
A Local Bus driver raised the possibility with my adoptive parents that I go and live with him and his family and he and a few others had seen issues and raised concerns, but it never went anywhere.
I was caught stealing and eating food from rubbish bins at ten years old and they took me to the Beenleigh Police Station and a Detective give me a dressing down about how bad I was, and I should be better behaved for my foster family, I was 10 and never even understood why I was talking to the detective, but I started to believe that I was no good and at the age of ten I was wondering my life’s value. I tried to overdose but really you must take a lot of Panadol to do that, but lucky for me I wasn’t clever enough to work out how to do it. I still remember trying to work out how to finish my own life.
I ended up going to a couple of other families for a few months because I was such a burden to my foster family but I always ended up back there, and when the families I stayed with said they would keep me that was a beating and punishment for telling people lies. I still today sometime wonder if this was all in my mind and not real, I am thinking that I was the problem and I cannot believe that I was so horrible at such a young age.
When I ran away at ten I was picked up by the Woodridge police and taken straight back. All I wanted to do was finish my life. I couldn’t keep going on like this and the whole time I tried so hard to be good but still got into trouble all the time. How could that be? I was trying so hard to be good. I wrote letters apologising for my bad behaviour and promised to do the right thing and these letters were handed out to all the other family members, and I was laughed at and taunted for writing letter apologising for my bad behaviour and promising to be a better person. I was only ten.
I was taken to another family in Ipswich and it was all the same back and forth between them until I managed to run away and with nowhere to go I lived under the town bridge for some time eating food from rubbish bins and trying to stay warm and clean whenever I could. I was a young boy selling myself to get money to pay for food and clothing. I was trying to find somewhere to live and start my new life as my life was certainly not what I thought it would be, until the Christian Brothers took me in and got me into this kid’s home on Warwick Rd Ipswich - New Life Centre and later became Quest Care.
I was in there with around other 20 kids from various backgrounds with different mental illnesses. It was a warm bed and fresh food and clean. They helped me get young homeless allowance and I don’t think it even covered the costs of living and schooling but the Christian Brothers allowed me to go to St Edmunds and these folks I can never repay for giving me a clean start.
I struggled at school but I loved going and I even started to believe I was okay. I didn’t have to eat from a rubbish bin or do sexual favours for food or a shower it was nice and I wondered where to go from here. I remember buying a push bike and a Walkman from my young homeless allowance and riding around Ipswich for miles feeling so good being able to listen to music and I never felt so free and thinking how great life was at 15 years old.
I finished school in 1988 and had to move out of the kids home and again had nowhere to go. I was given a part-time job when I was in year 11 and again these folks will never know what they did for me and at the time nor did I. I started driving trucks car carriers to Cairns out of my mind on drugs and once again I had no direction in life and I desperately needed to get direction to keep out of trouble.
The problem is if you had trouble in the past it never really leaves you and folks have no idea how hard I have had to fight to get everything I have today. I was always a fighter but my early years now show me we need to get to the kids before they go down the same road I did. Life doesn’t always make sense but everything happens for a reason.
Today I've found my natural parents and my mother, Mary is a nurse up the coast and my father works in a car auction house in Eagle Farm and I see them both regularly and we get on extremely well. My Mother cries because of what I have been through and I inform her that I am happy with my life and my road was the road I travelled to get here.
Folks do not realise how a few people can make a difference. I remember while I was living in the kids home on Warwick road visits from local identities and various Nuns and Christian Brothers, priests, pastors and various other councillors and business owners. Sometimes it only takes one person to say the right thing an it clicks and it can change you whole life.
A Better Life
She was born around 5pm into a welcoming world of smiles and joy. “She’s got dark hair!” the gentle male midwife announced, and then shortly afterwards, “Well, you have your little girl”. I was overjoyed at this miracle of life, delighted that I had a little girl to love, to hold and to keep. Friends popped in to welcome our new addition and my room was filled with flowers and joy.
It wasn’t that way with my first daughter, Caren Lee, born 19 years earlier when I was just 17 and knew nothing of life. She was precious too and I was lucky to see her, to hold her, and to bottle feed her on some days. It wasn’t that way for so many girls who were denied any access to their babies.
Like other girls in my predicament, I had been conditioned to accept that I could not keep her and thereby provide irrefutable evidence of my sexual indiscretion. Ours was a small community and like all small communities, it was fuelled by gossip and innuendo. Hours were spent peeking out from behind lace curtains to check what others were doing and nothing went unnoticed. What the neighbours thought moderated all our moral and social behaviours and no one escaped scrutiny. It was a lesson I learnt early in life when I misbehaved and was scolded by Mum with the old caution, “What will the neighbours think?”
And eventually ‘what the neighbours’ thought would contribute to depriving me of my first born. That and the lack of social and financial support, compounded by the harping messages of maternity hospitals and churches that we were ‘not good enough to be mothers’ and we should ‘give your child a better chance in a loving family’, ensured there was no alternative to relinquishment. That work relinquishment was used for all mothers who surrendered their babies to the system. It implies a voluntaryism that simply didn’t exist. We were pre-conditioned to it, beaten down by the social stigma and the system. We were helpless.
I was shocked to read about a song written by Lina Eve called Crown Street Girls from The Bad Girls series, a story of a girl who gave birth at the Sydney hospital under traumatic circumstances (they all were). Its chorus line says it all:
What will they say? what will they say?
They’d rather give their grandchildren away
Than risk what the neighbours will say.
I never blamed my parents for their part in the adoption of my daughter. It was a canyon-like decision-making process guided by the social mores of the day and there was no way out. The tragedy is that we were all deprived of a child - a grandchild, a niece, a cousin, a sister. It was a family tragedy.
What I have learned from life is that there is a timeliness that cannot be grasped before it’s opportunity is presented. That time was fast approaching.
The birth of my second daughter heavily underscored the undeniable longings I had to know my first child. A quarter of a century later and with fear and uncertainty influencing my actions, I ventured to the back of the cupboard and drew out the bundled dusty, sepia-toned memories that could never be denied, teased them out and examined them microscopically. It was gut-wrenching and painful and I came to doubt my readiness for a course of action that would challenge me and embarrass the family. Circumstances suggested that I was not ready and so I backed away from action until the time was right.
That time came a few years later when I felt stronger and more resolved to find my lost child. It wasn’t an easy process but was made easier by the change in the laws that permitted some contact, at least, some permission to tackle the first stage of reconciliation. Now the time was right. I wrote a letter to Jigsaw in New Zealand for information and received some helpful contacts and a brochure about the changes to the laws in 1985 around adoption. I followed this up with letters to Government Departments and got less than encouraging responses. This was not a process to be rushed.
About a year after I commenced my quest, I had a call from my mother who had received a letter from a young woman who inquired as to whether or not she could be her grandmother. Of course, this was the baby girl, Caren Lee, who was lost to me. I couldn’t believe my luck that she had put the pieces together and found my family. I was elated and scared; my joy knew no equal. I had to see her and tell her of the circumstances of her adoption and tell her I loved her and never wanted to give her away and that the future would be better and we could have a good relationship and that I would never let her down again in all my life and she now had found the family she had lost and…
We laid the foundations for our reunion by writing and phoning each other frequently over several months and answering each other’s questions candidly. At last, there was a huge relief for both of us that there was nothing to hide any more.
But where to start? A letter, phone calls, tears, “what coloured eyes have you got?", “how tall are you?”, “What shape is your nose?” and all the other questions that longed to be asked. We arranged to meet several months later and meanwhile, wrote to each other frequently, sending photos and patching together a background as a starting point. I asked about her parents and found that she had a happy life with a loving Mum and Dad and we agreed how lucky she had been.
Then we decided it was time to meet. The day finally arrived and her plane landed and disgorged a range of travellers and at last, just as I was starting to think she had changed her mind, my instantly recognisable child walked through the big glass doors with a nervous smile on her face. My heart raced.
Our encounter was like a tango, where first the dancers engage closely, intimately, expectantly, then hold each other at arm’s length for an overall appraisal, knowing there’s an element of safety in that distance. There follows a desperate embrace as the moves are repeated again and again, more urgently with every passing moment. Ultimately, the dance draws the dancers back together again, where they belong, safe in a close and loving embrace. Elation!
She was a cookie-cutter image of me – the same body shape, same nose, same skin, same hair colour, though she had her father’s smile, which she was delighted to know. We hungrily drank each other in, every detail, every feature, every blemish, like a black hole voraciously sucking in cosmic material, to the last tiny speck.
Naturally, over the next couple of days, we raced to know all about each other, but I found to my amazement that delving into her past was very difficult – not so much for her, but for me. For so many years I’d not been a part of Caren Lee’s life, and I resented the loss: all the memories we could have shared, all the ways we could have learnt from each other, all the bonding as mother and daughter we could have enjoyed – that primal experience. The past belonged to her adoptive parents, and I had no part in it, even though she was keen to share it with me. Though painful, I accepted that fact and decided to just enjoy the future, if there was to be one, together with my daughter. We could build our own memories to share in our new future together.
And we have. Over the past thirty-five years we have formed a strong bond and carved out a relationship that grows in many ways - a relationship that has forgiven and looks to the many positives in our lives.
It has been said that adoption is something that never goes away and it’s true. There are always lingering thoughts and the sadness that the greatest grief of all is for what could have been.
Reunion has given me a new life – one without guilt and sorrow and the secret I endured for over fifty years. The sadness diminishes but never disappears.
Tears still come at times
Being a father is important to me. I have three “children” who have all grown to be well adjusted adults.
I missed the childhood and early adulthood of my first child. He was adopted.
I now know he had a wonderful childhood with caring, loving parents. The joy of finding him and the realisation he is alright has somewhat, but not completeley, numbed the pain of forty plus years of wondering.
Perhaps rather selfishly I was excited when I found out he looks quite like my other son. They are full brothers. The similarities run deeper than looks and they have become firm friends. How good that feels.
His sister has taken him under her all protecting wing to ensure he stays ok. Tears still come at times.
Please forgive me
The time I allowed myself to feel the agony of losing you was a great gift.
Parts of me are broken, crumbling, unmendable. So knowing I was still able to connect with you via memories was a blessing.
I breathed in hope!
You surfaced after being buried under my deep suffering. Buried treasure!
My memories to date are patchy. Wherever you are, I want you to know I regularly send you all my love.
I truly hope you have a good life. For I had to save you from mine.
Please forgive me.