Caitriona Palmer’s new book An Affair with My Mother has captured the hearts and minds of adopted adults around the world. In it, Caitriona tells the story of reaching out to her birth mother. As a young unmarried woman in Ireland, Caitriona’s birth mother relinquished her to adoption when Caitriona was just two days old and kept it a secret from all those around her.
In her memoir, Ms Palmer speaks about the picture she built up of her mother in her head, and ‘the terror’ she felt at finally meeting her. This is a sentiment many adopted adults share, with one reader calling Caitriona’s story ‘a mirror to my own confusion and fear’.
Caitriona never anticipated how strongly her mother’s fear could impact on their meeting: “I imagined two worst case scenarios – that she was dead or that she wouldn’t want to meet me. I never considered that she would keep me a secret.” Soon after meeting, Caitriona’s mother, called Sarah in the book to protect her privacy, asked her daughter to temporarily keep their relationship a secret, to try and protect her family from what she saw as something shameful.
Some 15 years later, Caitriona is still keeping this secret. After years of passing letters via social workers, never calling her house, and conducting what felt like a ‘clandestine affair,’ contact between the two woman became sporadic, tailing off completely in December 2014. Since the birth of her own three children, Caitriona has struggled even more to understand her mother’s actions, but agreed to her terms of secrecy.
Speaking about this desire to please, Caitriona said: “As an adopted person I have felt that my entire life has been built around supporting the needs and wants of others, and that in spite of being an adult, I am still considered a child by those in authority. Eager to please and desperate to gain access to my birth right…I felt myself slipping back into that childlike pleasing pose.”
The response her book has received has highlighted for Ms. Palmer that she is not alone in her experience. Caitriona told us she’s been “overwhelmed by the response to the book”, and calls hearing similar stories from adopted adults “an unexpected pleasure”.
The response to the book highlights the existence of a hidden population of people affected by adoption, sharing similar experiences, yet feeling isolated. “One adopted person wrote to say that she too characterises her relationship with her birth mother as a secret affair,” continues Caitriona. “Another wrote to say that her mother has kept her hidden for over twenty-seven years.”
Historically, women who find themselves pregnant at a time in their lives which society deems inappropriate have been shamed and marginalised. Sarah’s story is not an uncommon one, as in recent years we have seen more birth mothers coming forward to speak of the discrimination, sexism and shame they experienced.
Many studies highlight the feelings of guilt and shame a birthparent can feel, even when the choice to give a child up is made entirely by them, and in a supportive environment. Caitriona’s story has affected not only those who were adopted, but those who identify with Sarah: “A secret birth mother wrote to thank me for opening this Pandora’s Box, and for highlighting the pain within. That message, from another secret mother who knows Sarah’s pain, meant the world to me.”
When asked what advice she would give others in her position, Caitriona says “Mediation is critically important when contacting a birth relative as reunions are notoriously complex, emotional, and draining for all involved. I had the support of a wonderful social worker, and I remain indebted to her for her help.”
Birthlink aims to fill this gap by providing help with searching, mediation and counselling. A representative from Birthlink said: “Sadly, stories like Caitriona’s are very common. Reaching out to birth families is extremely complicated, and we aim to support people in this situation every step of the way.”
When asked how ‘secret affairs’ like Caitriona’s can best be avoided, Birthlink recommend the Adoption Contact Register for Scotland. Joining this register is a confidential process allowing birth relatives and adopted adults to register a mutual interest in being contacted. With more than 11000 names and 200-300 registrations a year, this is the safest way to begin establishing contact, and to be sure of a welcoming response.
Caitriona gave this advice to anyone considering reaching out to birth family: “Take courage. Approach this process with an open and compassionate heart…I would never turn the clock back.”
• Alex Kellas is a student social worker