Written by Claire Moore
New Zealand has its own lost generation. During the 1960s and 70s, thousands of New Zealand children were taken from their mothers and given to a new family in a ‘closed adoption’. These children are now adults and many of them have found, and some are still looking for, their birth parents.
In many cases, just finding the parent is the aim. Some people spend many years on this part. This is the part they always make TV shows and movies about. The excitement of the chase. The thrill of the find. It was exactly that attitude that drove me to write about my own experience of adoption. And because my experience lies almost entirely on the other side of that hunt.
With all the ‘finding’ dramatised in the media, it is easy to forget that the discovery is not an end in itself. It is really just the beginning of a relationship. One that may or may not be welcome by all parties. This is always the untold part of the story. On this side of the hunt lies a lifetime of complications.
It’s not difficult to understand why. In the intervening 20 years, the woman who gave birth to this child has gone on with her life. She may have married, she may have had more children. She may not have shared her teenage shame of an unwanted pregnancy with all of those around her. Or she simply may not know how to deal with the emotions and complications that could arise from a reunion.
I was a part of this generation, as was my older brother, also adopted. I was born in 1970, the height of the ‘closed adoption’ era, and raised in a small town far from my place of birth. At the age of 20, I was advised that my adoption file was now open, and I was free to access whatever details were held regarding my birth mother.
I have many friends, each of whom has their own adoption story. In a small school in a small town, there were three of us just in my class, that I knew of. There may have been others I didn’t know, or those that didn’t even know themselves. We are a generation of adoptees, more than 37,000 of us in those two decades alone, and we all have different adoption stories, different journeys to find our tribe, different outcomes on the other side.
My story really is about the other side. You see, that magically opened file contained a letter from my birth mother – we’ll call her BM – saying she would like to meet me and I could contact her if that was what I wanted. This made the finding part of the story rather simple. She invited me into her life. It all flowed from there; all I had to do was make a phone call. Which I did; a meeting was arranged and so on.
It turned out that BM had been in a committed relationship when the accident that was me happened. I was quietly swept under the carpet, got rid of, and she carried on with her life and married my father. They had another daughter a few years later and continued with their lives as though I had never happened.
On that day, 20 years later, when I showed up on her doorstep, BM had to make phone calls to each of her three sisters telling them of my existence. As far as they had ever known, 20 years ago BM had gone off to complete a secretarial course in Wellington for a few months. In that era, those sorts of lies were how things were handled. Confinement in disguise.
I’m guessing the sisters were more than a little shocked by their respective phone calls. Did they judge BM for keeping such a secret from them for so long? She had no reason to, not after the death of their parents, at least. She could have told them then.
Nonetheless, BM’s enthusiasm at me becoming part of her life instilled in each of them an acceptance also. I love my new aunties. Not so new, now, from my perspective, 20-something years down the track. But just as loved.
And so I heard my back story. I met my full sister, although the father had left many years earlier – a divorce when little sister was only two. He had no interest in my existence at all. I can only imagine that in his mind, when they got rid of me 20 years ago, I had ceased to exist. At that time, BM and he had, of course, focused on the one they kept, their real daughter. Let’s call her RD, then.
In those early years, I spent a lot of time with both BM and RD. I grew to know and love them. They became a part of my life just as much, if not more than my adoptive family. There was a novelty for me in seeing people with whom I shared physical characteristics. RD was only a teenager, and was the classic, spoilt, only child. Nonetheless, her palpable excitement at finding out she had an older sister was endearing. BM and I were similar in many ways in character, and we both enjoyed those years of getting to know each other. Yet, quietly, unobtrusively, a shadow hangs over the relationship.
You see, no matter how welcome you are back into your birth family, no matter how loved you are, no matter how many times you are introduced as “my daughter” or hear her telling people she has two daughters, the simple fact is you will always be second. You are not as loved or as real as the daughter she raised. And in many ways I can understand that. RD is the one whose nappies she changed, the one whose hand she held on her first day of school, the one who has always depended only on her.
Ours was a much more complicated relationship than just mother and daughter. I was an adult when we met, I had an adoptive mother of my own. However, I didn’t think that ‘complicated’ had to mean ‘less important’. I was wrong.
This was a long and slow lesson for me. And there were oh so many clues I should have seen and subconsciously chose not to.
So the years passed; I travelled, I married and had a child. We returned to New Zealand with a three year old. RD and BM lived in Sydney now, separately – RD was in her mid-20s then – but BM had regular visits home. One of the loved aunties lived close to us, and her three children – ‘the cousins’ we always called them – were adored by our little family. So BM’s visits were to them and us, but really they were to the cousins and we were peripheral.
Her marked lack of interest in her only grandchild was puzzling to me. She stayed with the cousins, spent time with each of those children, but only brief visits to us. When I addressed her about this lack of interest in my son, her answer was along the lines of her not knowing him well and so finding it harder to do things with him compared with her favourite niece and nephews. The implication was that somehow it was my three‑year‑old son’s fault, that despite having only just met her, he didn’t automatically adore her the way the cousins did.
I had two more babies over the next few years, and still each time BM visited, it was not really to show much interest in them. A quick dutiful cuddle, and then off to the cousins’ house. This time when I addressed the issue, her reply was more along the lines of: “I really prefer them when they’re a bit older, [I’m] not really a baby person.”
We ticked along for the next few years. I would manage occasional weekend escapes to Sydney, and BM, RD and I would have nights out and lazy brunches, which was wonderful. The three of us had some lovely times together; we were, I thought, just like any other family. It was my break from the demands of three small children, demands that BM and RD could never appreciate.
A friend once asked me: “but should she be a grandmother to them?” I was taken aback by the question, and stopped to think about it for some time. Again, this is part of the complication that exists in all our adoption stories.
I came to the conclusion that yes, she should. You don’t get to pick and choose what bits of a mother you want to be. If you invite your adopted daughter back into your life, which she did, and then treat her as a daughter, which she did, then you have to follow through. You don’t get to just have the brunches and nights out, and ignore anything you can’t be bothered with. If she wants me in her life, then she takes my family too. And that includes my husband, whose birthday she never bothers to remember, and my children, in whom she has so little interest.
Briefly, RD was in a serious relationship. The way BM welcomed this partner into their lives and treated them as a third child was enlightening. Each birthday was remembered and celebrated.
Even now, years after they have broken up, BM stays in touch and always remembers birthdays. So I guess it was another lack in my daughter-ness that means she still doesn’t bother to remember my husband’s birthday, after 20 years of marriage.
Then, of course, RD had a child. This immediately put paid to all of the feeble excuses BM had supplied over the years to explain her lack of interest in my children. Suddenly she was the epitome of the adoring grandmother.
This was another ‘aha’ moment for me. So this was down to my lack of daughter-ness too. Nothing to do with ‘not being a baby person’ after all.
Then, out of nothing, the beginning of the end came. RD and I had an argument. One of those minor clashes that sisters have, nothing to split a family apart.
RD was still the spoilt only child at heart, and was making a drama over Christmas plans. I suggested that as we were a big group that year, if we just split the cost of food it would be not much per head. This set her off on a rant about me “having no idea what the real world was like, she was a single mother supporting a child and my idea of ‘not much’ was different than everybody else’s”. All this bitterness over how hard her life was, as she was in the middle of arranging her fourth overseas holiday in the three years she had been a mother.
I let it go, told her I wasn’t interested in her tantrum, and thought nothing more of it. I just waited for RD to calm down and get over it as she always does eventually, tantrums are not a rare occurrence for her.
BM told me that it was all nothing to do with her, she was staying out of it. I was unaware there was an alternative. Of course it had nothing to do with her. Yet she did choose to get involved despite her denial. And it turned what had been a minor argument between sisters, into the end of our relationship.
I had 20 years without this family and 26 years with them. And now nothing. I still have the aunties I love, and most of all the beloved cousins, but BM and RD are gone. BM picked a side. For no reason at all. She was not pushed into a choice. This was not life or death, one relationship or the other. She simply turned her back on me and walked away. Finally I understood my lack of daughter-ness.
She turned her back on me once before, but this time there is no way back, no happy reunion. She’s out of my life.
Everyone has a different adoption story. And it doesn’t stop with just finding the mother. There is the other side of that discovery, and that too can be so different. Some, like my brother, have no further contact after an initial meeting or two. Some, like one of my old classmates, feel they do not get the answers or sense of belonging that they had gone searching for, and desperately needed.
Our lost generation grew up, essentially, as part of a failed social experiment. I believe the intentions were good and noble. Everyone was trying to do what was best for the child. They just failed to see the future implications, the impossible situations some of us would later find ourselves in.
Even now, in the media and in general society, the expectation is that successfully finding your birth family is a joyous and wonderful thing. “Aren’t you lucky?” “Now you have two families.” There is a romanticising of the reunion story when, in fact, for many there is more pain, grief and confusion, than the joy everyone wants to see.
For many years, I had thought this emotional conflict didn’t apply to me. I was so lucky with my adoption story. I became part of a new family, with a little sister I adored, and a mother I loved.
But now it’s back to the closed file. The one I will never fully understand.