Adoption: The secrets, lies and myths

I don’t know a single natural mother who willingly gave up her baby, writes Claire McGettrick.

THOSE who speak of natural mothers wishing to forever ‘keep their secrets’ clearly have no grasp of adoption and its profound impact on those directly affected.

Ireland’s closed, secret, forced adoption system involved a complete separation of mother and child, where the break was permanent and neither would have knowledge of the other’s whereabouts. It offered no alternative to mothers but to relinquish their children.

For example, in 1967, a staggering 96.95% of all children born outside marriage were adopted.

Hidden from society, these women and girls were expected to get on with their lives as if they had never given birth or suffered the loss of a child.

Through my work with Adoption Rights Alliance (and its predecessor organisation Adoption Ireland) and Justice for Magdalenes Research, I have had the privilege of speaking with a large number of natural mothers.

Women who gave birth in the 1950s and 1960s speak of their children being taken from them by force.

Those from the 1970s say that despite an improvement in women’s rights, they simply had no choice due to financial and/or societal pressures.

Those from the 1980s describe their desperate attempts to keep their children, where instead of receiving advice, support and encouragement, they were coerced into relinquishing their babies by nuns and social workers who insisted that there was a ‘good family’ waiting to adopt the child.

In short, I do not know a single mother who willingly or easily gave up her baby.

When a mother loses a child in any circumstance other than adoption, she is supported by family, friends and community. She is allowed to grieve openly — she is allowed to grieve.

In Ireland when a mother lost her baby to adoption, she was told to walk away and forget about her child: no counselling was offered and there was certainly no opportunity to grieve. It is what Kenneth Doka and later Evelyn Robinson (natural mother and author of Adoption and Loss – the Hidden Grief) call ‘disenfranchised grief’.

Adoption brings with it a unique set of feelings that only those directly affected can understand. Because adopted people were infants at the time of separation, they do not consciously remember the loss. Thus, the effect is not always apparent to the uneducated eye, and for the adopted person at its most basic level, there is a sense that something is not quite right.

Adopted people know all too well that it is possible to miss something you have never had. More often than not, it takes speaking to other adopted people in order to be able to articulate those thoughts and feelings.

Conversely, natural mothers do remember their loss and most in Irish society have no concept of the impact of being forced to deny it.

In my experience, natural mothers will either completely suppress the pain or they will keep the wound open and the trauma remains in their conscious mind. Mothers who allow themselves to remember tend to talk more about their experiences and are generally those who will try to seek out their children, often approaching the adoption agency, who will (in all cases I have encountered) contact the adoptive parents of the (adult) adopted person instead of the adopted person themselves.

Those mothers who live in silence generally tell nobody about what happened to them. Sometimes when these mothers are approached about contact with their children, they will initially react badly to the request because it is such a shock to have those feelings of loss brought up again.

Adopted people by their nature will assume that it is their fault and conclude that they were not wanted, but this could not be further from the truth.

However, the refusal rarely lasts forever and we in Adoption Rights Alliance are always overjoyed to hear from adopted people who receive letters or phone calls from their natural mothers who had previously declined contact.

Sometimes all that was needed was time to process and think things through and most adopted people are sensitive to that and respect their mothers’ wishes. And, crucially, when natural mothers are offered an opportunity to speak to somebody who understands what they have been through (in most cases another mother) and they are given the space to express their feelings of loss, in our experience they will always change their minds.

The secrecy surrounding Irish adoption causes much pain and misunderstanding and the time for openness and truth is long overdue.

Those who wish to perpetuate the myth of the closeted natural mother ought to educate themselves before they speak, lest they hinder the work of those who seek to introduce some much-needed humanity into Irish adoption policy.

Claire McGettrick is co-founder of Adoption Rights Alliance and Justice for Magdalenes Research

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