Published 02 Mar 2008
The emotional fallout from learning you are adopted can last a lifetime. And many women feel it most when they themselves give birth. Eleni Kyriacou meets four adoptees for whom motherhood brought about a huge change in their attitudes
When Zara was pregnant with her first child, Zachary, she was unprepared for the emotional upheaval that would follow. ‘I’d wake up howling,’ she recounts. ‘I kept dreaming that the baby would be taken away from me.’
Zara herself had been adopted at two months. Like many women in her situation, she’s discovered that her adoption is not an event in her murky past; it’s an ongoing process that can have a lifelong impact. Pregnancy and motherhood can be something of a milestone that brings up conflicting emotions in adult adoptees, from a heightened sense of compassion for both their birth and adoptive mothers, to a burning curiosity about their own children’s genetic inheritance.
Pam Hodgkins, the chief executive of Adults Affected by Adoption (NORCAP) and an adopted mother herself, says, ‘Years may pass and it barely seems significant, but an event like childbirth can create or resurrect emotions – emotions that can come at any time and hit you right between the eyes.’
Zara’s birth mother, Pat, had been 17 when she had a brief relationship with Zara’s father, Vittorio. ‘She was an unmarried English girl pregnant by an Italian; her parents were so ashamed. She later told me that, if she’d been able to have an abortion, she would have.’ But this was 1964, and her only option was adoption.
Now 43, Zara, whose married name is Phillips, is a singer-songwriter who lives in New Jersey with her American husband, Jonathan, 11-year-old son, Zachary, and daughters Kayla and Arden, aged seven and five. ‘When I first held my son I felt compassion for my birth mother,’ Zara says. ‘Even if she’d wanted to keep me, she wouldn’t have been able to. I thought of all those women in the 1950s and 1960s who were forced to give up their children. Surely you’d have to close off your heart if you did that, otherwise it would drive you insane. I looked at him in my arms and thought, “How can you give away your baby?”
‘I began to feel compassion for my adoptive mother, too,’ she explains, ‘because she’d had several miscarriages and never had a child of her own. I felt guilty about getting pregnant and about her infertility.’
Hodgkins reports that pregnant adoptees often feel they can’t share the joy with their adoptive mothers. She adds that from the first trip to the antenatal clinic questions about family medical history are relentless. ‘You say, “I don’t know because I was adopted,” and you keep being asked. You think to yourself, “If it’s this important, I should know, and if it isn’t, why do I keep being asked?” You’re bereft of information.’
Experts agree that it’s too simplistic to suggest that an adopted woman will make a particular kind of mother. For some women, their adoption has an impact on their mothering, but it’s not a given and certainly not always a negative. Zara’s experience is mixed. ‘I’m more touchy-feely with my children than my parents were with me. My adoptive parents loved me but I grew up feeling joyless. I even told my adoptive mum when I was eight that I was depressed. She just said, “You’re too young to know what that means.” But I think it stemmed from a sense of loss. She wasn’t the mother I wanted and I never felt I was the right daughter for her. I always knew I was adopted. I think my mother told me when I was four or five. I have no memory of being actually told, just of the feelings as a child.
‘I’m a little strict with my children. I like them to have a good routine. Parenting was much harder when Zachary was a baby, as he was my first and I had a lot of anxiety. I couldn’t leave him in a room because I actually thought he’d disappear into thin air. I’d check and check on him. I think that came from a real fear of separation. Even now I get anxious about him going to a sleepover – I assume he’ll hate being away from us, the way I did. But of course he doesn’t.’
Aged 23, Zara searched for and found her birth mother. She has documented the reunion with Pat in her book Mother Me. Today, they share a decent, albeit ‘superficial’, relationship. ‘I haven’t found my birth father and that missing piece is a profound loss. When I gave birth to my youngest daughter, Arden, she didn’t look like any of us for a while. She looked Italian. I knew in my gut that she looked like him and I couldn’t help staring at her. Maybe I could get a glimpse of him through her? I wanted to drink it all in. It was so bittersweet. Today I love watching my daughters play with their father, but it used to be so painful. I was jealous because my father had never played with me. Sometimes I feel like an outsider in my own family.’
You’d think that a mixed-race child adopted into British aristocracy would feel like an outsider but Nimmy March, now a 46-year-old actress and mother of three, says her experience was never one of looking in. Born to a white English mother and a black South African father, Nimmy was adopted by the Duke and Duchess of Richmond aged just six months. Trans-racial adoptions among the upper classes were as rare in 1962 as they are today, and the pioneering duke and duchess were vilified by many for, as Nimmy puts it, ‘sullying the aristocracy’.
Nimmy believes that her mixed-race heritage may have made life easier for her in some respects. ‘If you’re a white child adopted into a white family, it would be easy to fantasise about being the birth child of those people. You may not really own what has happened. There was no question of whether I “belonged” or not; my parents had chosen me and I was being brought up as their child. I knew nothing else. My mother, the duchess, always taught me that I “belong” only to myself.’
Nimmy’s birth mother was 17 when she got pregnant. Her birth father, whom Nimmy has since met, was a South African singer and actor. ‘I know she didn’t really have a choice. The records show she made sure I was being adopted into a loving family, not just fostered.’
At 27, Nimmy’s attempt to contact her birth mother hit a brick wall. ‘I got a letter back saying that as far as she was concerned I was not her daughter.’ But, far from feeling bitter, Nimmy feels compassion. ‘Before giving birth to Khaya, my eldest, I thought about how that must have been – to be about to give birth and know that, regardless of how I might feel about this child, it was going to be taken away from me. Giving birth is the most intimate experience you can have with another being. Imagine knowing that you’re giving birth into grief. And to have no support. When I was pregnant, if my husband went for a walk, I knew he was coming back. What did she have?
‘I respect the fact she’s chosen not to see me but all I ever wanted was to say thank you, give her a hug and tell her she did OK. The sorrow is that she has three beautiful grandchildren whom she doesn’t know.’
Hodgkins says that adoptees often feel more compassion towards their birth mothers once they have their own children. ‘They often realise how awful it must have been for their mothers to give them up.’ Noticing any physical similarities between their offspring and themselves can also set them thinking about their birth parents. ‘It can trigger the thought that there’s someone else out there who you look like,’ says Hodgkins. ‘ This may be the first time you’ve ever seen someone you’re genetically related to and it can be incredibly powerful.’
Today Nimmy wonders if her children – Khaya, eight, Malachy, seven, and Lottie, three – have inherited any of her mother’s physical attributes. ‘My husband, Gavin, is Caucasian, so my children are only a quarter South African. They have quite African noses, and slightly African features, yet I wonder about the eyes, I wonder about the ears and the turn of the ankle. How much of that is from her side of the family?’
Despite the questions that remain unanswered, Nimmy says her adoption has been a positive experience. ‘My mother taught me that although my history is important it isn’t necessary to know everything about it in order to know myself. I thank my lucky stars I was adopted into this family. And as a result of being given up for adoption, I appreciate what a privilege it is to have children and to be able to keep them.’
Being adopted can undoubtedly make you think about parenthood in more depth. Julia Feast, the policy, research and development consultant at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), has counselled adult adoptees about finding their birth parents. ‘Many adopted people say that they become very emotional after giving birth; it really brings home to them the fact of their adoption,’ she says. ‘But those emotions can be sadness and happiness, too.’
Adopted through the Catholic Rescue Society at five months, Angie Barmby, a 39-year-old clerical assistant, has two daughters, Lucy, 11, and Libby, eight. In particular, it was the arrival of the second which stirred up thoughts of her birth mother. ‘It was after Libby’s birth that I thought of my adoption more. She was the second girl; I had been the second one, and had been given up. I couldn’t understand how she’d coped with doing what she did. I think you have to be a very strong person to carry a child, give birth to them, probably fall in love with them the minute you see them and then let go.’
Angie had a contented childhood. ‘I was very happy with my adoptive parents and much loved,’ she recounts. ‘Growing up, I felt that little bit extra-special, because I was more wanted.’
Her birth mother, Anne, had already had a daughter out of wedlock whom Anne’s mother was taking care of. When she became pregnant with Angie, it was decided she wouldn’t keep her. ‘I did wonder why she kept my sister but not me,’ says Angie. ‘But I’ve heard since that the family weren’t keen on having “another bastard” in the house! I was the result of a one-night stand with a colleague. Later she married someone else and tried to get me back, but it was too late then.’
When she was 20 Angie decided to make contact with her birth mother, Anne. They met in a crowded café. ‘It was like looking in a mirror that had aged me 20 years. I immediately knew who she was.’ Angie has never blamed her mother for the decision she made. ‘In fact I think she gave me a great gift. I’m proud of being adopted,’ she states. ‘She knew that, if she kept me, the future would be very uncertain, not only for me but for my sister, too. She protected what she had for my sister and protected the future for me. She had to let me go. As a parent you want your children to have a better life than you. She gave me that.’
Adoptees’ feelings are never set in stone. Julia Feast says, ‘Adoption is a never-ending story. It shifts all the time, as do the relationships within it.’ Pam Hodgkins agrees and cites a personal example of how adoption may bring up new feelings years on. ‘In 1995 my birth mum died and my adoptive mum was alive, but in poor health. The following spring, on Mother’s Day, I went to take flowers to my adoptive mother – something I’d always done. It was bizarre. I almost found it impossible to get out of the car. It felt odd giving her flowers when my birth mum had died a few months earlier. It suddenly hit me. Here I was, a mother myself, and it was the first Mothering Sunday since my birth mother had died. Shouldn’t I be at her cemetery with my flowers? It brought home the reality that I have two mothers.’