The truth, the secret Veronica had kept for years, is that far from being childless, in 1964, in her 20s, she had given birth to a daughter, Catherine. What happened after the birth has fuelled an anger in her that refuses to be dampened. “I, and thousands of women like me, were coerced into giving up our children,” she says. “I was a perfectly healthy, capable adult. I’m still angry my child was taken away.” The social, economic and religious pressures that existed at the time are easily forgotten now that the stigma of illegitimacy has been erased and sex without a wedding ring is the norm.
Veronica was a nurse in Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Bognor Regis in 1964, and going out with Sam, when she became pregnant. “There was no abortion. The doctor suggested gins, a hot bath and a douche, ” she says. “I wrote to my sister and she said, ‘Mummy and I are coming to see you.’ My mother was very religious and my father was a lieutenant colonel. She said it would kill him, so he never knew. I was sent to the Catholic Crusade of Rescue. I was a trained nurse, how could I not think for myself? But I was brought up to be an obedient Catholic. It destroyed my relationship with Sam.” She was sent to a Catholic hostel in Brixton, south London. “It was the so-called Swinging Sixties, yet we were made to scrub the floors as penance for our sins. I held my daughter for a week. And then she was gone.”
Earlier this month, Veronica was one of a small and unlikely group of doughty women, in their 60s and 70s, dressed in varying shades of red, carrying placards, who demonstrated outside the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, London. For many, it was their first taste of public protest. The women are members of MAA, the Movement for an Adoption Apology. Set up in 2010, it is an offshoot of the Natural Parents Network that offers support to people affected by adoption. What prompted MAA’s launch was the decision by the state of Western Australia to issue an official apology for forced adoptions that took place several decades ago.
Other states followed, culminating, in March this year, in the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, announcing a substantial support fund and a national mea culpa. “We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamentals rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children,” she said in front of 800 people affected by forced adoptions. “You were not legally or socially acknowledged as mothers and you yourselves were deprived of care. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and, in many cases, illegal.”
The members of MAA argue that adoptions during the same period in the UK were similarly highly flawed. They seek a public apology from the British government for women who were also “coerced, cajoled and conned” into giving up their babies. Earlier this year, an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons for a UK apology attracted 88 signatures, but progress has been slow. Perhaps this is because it’s a challenge now to fathom the ferocity of punitive disapproval for a girl who “got herself into trouble”.
The MAA supporters are hoping the lack of understanding may be countered by the film Philomena, starring Judi Dench, about the forced adoption of a three-year-old boy, Anthony, in postwar Ireland. Hence MAA’s presence at the screening in Leicester Square.
The film, co-written by and co-starring Steve Coogan, tells the true tale of Philomena Lee’s 50-year search for her son Anthony – a hunt helped by the journalist Martin Sixsmith. Philomena had been “put away” in a County Tipperary convent as a teenager, pregnant and deemed a “fallen woman”. She worked without pay in the laundry, seeing Anthony for an hour a day until he was given to an American couple from Missouri in return for a “donation”. Mother and son repeatedly returned to the convent for information about each other, but the nuns kept silent. Anthony – now Michael – finally left his mother the only clue he could, his tombstone in the convent’s graveyard. The film, Steve Coogan has said, “is about tolerance and understanding”.
When I first met Veronica and other MAA supporters, several months ago, it transpired that it was action not tolerance that they seek. Initially, it’s hard to see how a government apology is appropriate when their stories are of such profound personal loss. In the 1950s and 1960s, an estimated half a million women became unmarried mothers. Their experiences are a television staple. The drama of lives lived in reverse has a powerful hold, beginning with the mourning for the loss of a child and ending – at least on the TV screen – in celebration at the birth of a new relationship.
However, as I met the women of MAA, they revealed the extent of the stain of secrecy and internalised shame. For some, there were also the complexities of reunions; the negative emotions unexpectedly triggered as deep-frozen memories thawed; the impact of families reshaped and the joy but also the fresh wounds that sometimes prove impossible to heal.
Helen Jeffreys became pregnant at 17 in 1965, in Harrogate. She gave birth to her son in Leeds. “I was 18 and a perfectly competent mother. I wanted to keep him,” Helen, now 65 and a counsellor, says. “My social worker refused to offer any help other than to facilitate adoption. When Adam was two months old I had to leave the mother-and-baby home. I was told that if I had nowhere to go he must be placed for adoption. When I signed the papers not one official asked me if this is what I wanted.”
Adoption then meant a complete break. Helen believed she would never see her son again. Only much later, in 1975, did it become possible for adopted children, at 18, to request their birth certificate. Adam’s birth was also long before legislation that would have given him and his mother a home; the benefits system was limited and the voluntary organisations which offered help did so in the language of sin and moral welfare. Other influences were in play, too, that shaped the ” free choice” of unmarried mothers to give up their babies “for their own good”.
Half a Million Women, an analysis published by the Post-Adoption Centre in 1992, illustrates how unmarried mothers were seen not as victims of bad luck but often pathologised as “emotionally disturbed” and a “discredited person”. (The men, at worst, had to endure shotgun marriages.)
Paradoxically, the woman who gave her baby up for adoption was judged mentally healthy and emotionally stable; those who fought to keep their child were classed as immature and unfit to be a mother. This was a cruel twist as the lack of practical and emotional support might eventually drive a woman to the edge. Add to that the then much stronger influence of religion and the role of society in coercion becomes more of a reality.
“Anna”, a MAA member now aged 75, came from an affluent Catholic family. Training as a nursery nurse, she became pregnant at the age of 21 in 1959, as the result of a rape. Her parents would only consider adoption. “The baby was mixed race so I knew she would be hard to adopt,” Anna says. “For three months I visited her at the foster home. I don’t know why I gave her away. I still can’t answer that question. It makes me ashamed. On the appointed day, I told my daughter, ‘I’m going to find you one day.’ That was my goodbye. I hate the church for what it made me do and how it’s made me feel. It’s hard to disentangle your own identity from the idea that you are somehow ‘unfit’.”
In 1968, the peak year for adoptions, 16,164 children went through the system, three out of four under the age of one. By 1984, the colloquial term “bastards” had been banished. Official documents referred to “births outside marriage”; contraception and abortion were available, the social mores were changing dramatically. The number of adoptions in 1984 had fallen to 4,189, only 43% of whom were babies. But the cost to many of the unwed mothers of the 50s and 60s proved high.
“I lost my son for 29 years and it had a huge effect on me,” Helen Jeffreys says. “I went through a period when I drank, I took drugs. I have underperformed for my entire life. I am no good at relationships. On the day Adam was adopted, right until the last minute, I was hoping for a reprieve, for clemency. It was like a death sentence.”
Jean Robertson-Molloy, 77, is a retired social worker. She is open and effervescent, a founder member of MAA who is also active in the Green Party. Her life has also been moulded by that one decision. “My story,” she says wryly, talking at her home in north London, “is a very downbeat Mamma Mia.” In 1963, aged 24, she travelled to New Zealand, and in a short space of time she had had sexual encounters with three men. The first was Keith, who raped her. The other two, Andy and Don, were consensual partners. “Don and I drove up the west coast in his little Fiat,” she says. “We had a tent and camped for four or five days. I enjoyed it. He was a lovely man.”
Soon, Jean realised she was pregnant. She arranged to have her baby adopted in Australia, telling her parents that she was sightseeing. “Later, when my mother learned the truth,” Jean says, “she was in tears. She said they would have helped me to keep her if they’d known. I never held my daughter,” Jean adds, eyes brimming. “I was so afraid to hold her in case I had maternal feelings. Of the three men, I chose the one I liked least, Keith, as the probable father. Ever since, it’s almost as if I want people to accept the worst things about me. Years later, when I did find my daughter, I realised that the lovely guy, Don, had to be her dad.”
Jean married in 1970. Her husband was 10 years younger. When their children, Johnny and Caroline, were four and five, “he waltzed off so I ended up a single parent anyway”. Twenty years, later, in 1991, Jean traced her daughter, Amanda, who had been raised by an affluent Australian family. “I pretended I was travelling around Australia and asked if I could see her. I think I overwhelmed her. She said we could meet for three hours.” Amanda was happily married to an architect and had three daughters. “She was very ambivalent,” Jean says. “Worse than anger is anger you don’t express. We never talked about our feelings.”
For years, contact consisted of two or three letters a year. Then, in 2010, Amanda saw a newspaper photograph of Jean in the Green Party. “She said she felt a twinge of connection.” Amanda came to London and stayed with her birth mother for two weeks. “I said all the wrong things,” Jean says tearfully. “I was trying to cram in 40 years of advice. I asked her, ‘Why do you always wear black?’ I didn’t mean it critically.” For the last few days of her visit, Amanda moved into a hotel. “She said, ‘We are two very different people.’ Back in Australia, Amanda told Jean that she didn’t want to have any further contact.
Jean hasn’t heard from her daughter since. “The apology isn’t so much for me,” she says, “but for the many women, still silent. It might make the unspeakable speakable.”
Veronica is one who kept her secret until she had a breakdown in 1989. “All the grief that I had locked away came tumbling out.” Aged 58, she then began to look for her daughter. Catherine was eventually found, aged 24. “She didn’t want to know me,” Veronica says. “I was devastated.” She had to wait another 10 years before Catherine resumed contact, prompted by the arrival of her own child. “Catherine’s adopted mother died recently and we’ve become closer,” Veronica says. “Feelings are bound to be complicated if your child has been rejected. I just want her to be happy.”
Linda Jones, 63, like Philomena, raised her daughter, Carly, until she was three. Then, Linda’s mother arranged an adoption. “My mother was respectable and found the idea I wasn’t married difficult. I was finding it hard to cope,” says Linda. She subsequently married and had a second daughter. Now divorced, it was her younger daughter, aged 29, who traced Carly, 34, through Facebook. “The sisters are in touch, but I have a very strange relationship with my older child,” says Linda. “It’s a lifetime of grief and yearning because she belongs to someone else. Then, when you meet, you realise you will always be half a mother.”
Helen Jeffreys found her son in 1995. Adam, now called David, was 29. Helen, who had married, divorced and had a second son, says: “I had a feeling David needed to be found. Doors opened as if it was meant to happen.” He had been an only child. His adopted mother had died when he was 12, and his adopted father at 18. “He is part of my extended family now,” Helen says. “He gets on really well with my father, which is ironic. My dad said, ‘Why was he adopted? But he was the one who told me to leave the house.
“When I met David it was as if he was an old friend. We went to music gigs and drank a lot of real ale. He was a bit lost. We talked and talked.” Helen is a Buddhist and now David is, too. However, Helen’s second son no longer speaks to her, although he is friends with David on Facebook. “He said he felt displaced. He told me, ‘I look at this bloke. I can see he’s my brother, but he’s a complete stranger. It does my head in.'”
“It’s not always been easy with Helen,” says David, who is now 47 and has been happily married to a younger friend of his mother’s for 13 years. “But I am glad I know her. I don’t feel resentment. My mother says hardly a day went by when she didn’t wonder what had happened to me. She never wanted to do it. That’s a big burden for any mother to carry.”
Many who gave up their children for adoption in the 50s and 60s did so willingly and without regret. For others, MAA insists, a government apology, backed by funding to help those women who have silently fallen apart over the years, is vital. It is unlikely to happen under a coalition government, but MAA has more faith should Labour win power. A public acknowledgement might appear a superficial gesture to younger generations, but for the redoubtable Jean and Veronica and friends, it offers atonement, and that is beyond price.
For information on MAA, email MAANPN@gmail.com. The film Philomena was released internationally.
[I have suggested that tribes adopt this type of village in South Dakota where social workers still remove children at alarming rates, despite the federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act… Solving and ending tribal poverty in 2016 and beyond could change everything for children… Lara Trace]