Now, Barnardos is commemorating the 30th anniversary of its post-adoption service, which provides support to birth mothers and adopted adults.
It recently launched a booklet entitledand a podcast. The publication and podcast comprise the stories of women in their own words, talking about parting with their children for adoption. They also talk about their experience of Barnardos’ post-adoption service support groups.
The acclaimed Irish actress, Sinead Cusack, who gave birth outside marriage, is the narrator on the podcast. The material is an insight into the dark and relatively recent period in Irish history that was shrouded in shame and secrecy.
County Meath-based Terri, who is from Abbeyfeale, recalls the isolation of being pregnant as a single 23-year-old.
“When I told the father of the child, he didn’t want to know. My family didn’t want to know. At the time, Ireland was very church-ridden. My parents would have been very Catholic.
“I came from a small village. I was considered a disgrace, an outcast. I brought shame on my family. At the time, I was working in Dublin (in the accounts department of RTÉ). I didn’t know what to do or where to go. It’s hard to explain now but I had a feeling of being frozen in time. My sister knew a priest who was going to help me.”
Through the former St Anne’s Adoption Society in Cork, nuns arranged for Terri to stay with a Cork family for the final month of her pregnancy. She continued to work in Dublin for as long as she could. At work, Terri says her colleagues were mostly supportive although she was aware they were talking about her behind her back.
The family Terri lived with before having her baby “were wonderful. They had a couple of children. A lot of girls in that situation would have to do house work or child-minding. I wasn’t expected to do anything. I was like a companion to the mother, a wonderful woman.”
After giving birth, Terri kept her daughter for six weeks. There was no such thing as maternity leave at the time.
“At the back of my head, I was going to find a way to hold on to her. I never had any intention of having her adopted. I don’t think I could have gone through with the pregnancy if I thought that was going to happen. So I was trying to keep her.
“I had nowhere to live. I went back to the Cork family for a few days. I had an aunt and uncle in Cork so my uncle suggested I come and stay with them. I had the baby with me there but they made it clear that I had no choice but to have her adopted. And the nuns were on to me, saying I wouldn’t be a fit mother and that my daughter would be the only child at the school gates with no father. You have no idea. The adoption was forced on me.”
Giving up her daughter, she says “was the worst day of my life ... and I’ve been through a lot of stuff. I didn’t want to go on living after that. I handed my daughter over on a Friday and got on the train back to Dublin on Monday to go back to work. Nobody said a thing.”
What had happened to Terri was “never acknowledged”.
She said: “That could have been as much me as them. But there was no support and no help from the adoption agency. They said I had no right to information about where my child was or how she was.”
How did Terri cope?
“Alcohol, probably, in the evenings. But I suppose I’m lucky in that alcohol didn’t suit me.”
So she gave that up.
Terri used to cry herself to sleep every night and get up for work in the morning.
“It was like living these two separate lives. Even the people who knew about it said nothing. Nobody ever asked me how I was feeling. I suffered depression on and off. I was in therapy for a good few years but never mentioned what had happened to me. It was so locked up inside me. To go there would have been too painful. The therapy couldn’t have helped as I wasn’t talking about a huge part of my life and the traumatic experience of it.”
Terri, who went on to marry and have two more children, read an article about Barnardos’ post-adoption service.
“I felt I needed it. I made an appointment with Nora Gibbons, a great woman. I went to the service in Harold’s Cross, in Dublin. Before I went into the office, I was looking up and down the street to make sure nobody knew me.”
When she spoke about her experience, Terri felt total relief, for the first time. “I felt that I was normal to feel the way I was feeling. I’m nearly in tears when I think about it.
Terri took part in group information sessions organised by Barnardos with about nine other women.
“It was one of the best things ever. You never had to explain anything. The other women just knew what you were talking about.”
Before Terri parted with her daughter, she had made a silent promise to her that she would find her when she was 18. She went back to the adoption agency and was seen by a lay social worker who gave her non-identifying information about her child. Eventually, she got to meet her daughter when she turned 18.
“Barnardos were a great support to me that time. When I met my daughter, it was so emotional. I suppose the biggest thing for me was having this young woman walk in that looked exactly like me. The other thing that struck me were her mannerisms. She had a lot of the mannerisms as the two children I reared.”
Terri is no longer in touch with her daughter.
“It hasn’t really worked out. It’s sad because I have grandchildren that I don’t see.”
Terri is able to talk to her husband about the circumstances surrounding the birth of her first child. She also told her other children when they were quite young. But she says the sadness and loss will always be a part of her.
While Terri’s story isn’t in the Barnardos’ commemorative booklet or podcast, she says: “Our stories need to be told. We still feel we’re kind of secret people, the hidden women of Ireland.”
On a positive note, Terri says that because of Barnardos and being able to open up, she no longer feels like a “split” person.
The post-adoption project leader at Barnardos is Christine Hennessy. She says that the group work support service for women who’ve parted with their children for adoption has been availed of by about 450 women: “Many more women have met with us for individual support.”
She says many birth mothers attending Barnardos over the years “have been happily reunited with their adult sons and daughters and have fulfilling relationships with them. But others have had more complex outcomes to the experience of searching for their son or daughter.”
Barnardos also provides a group support service for adopted children which is located in Dublin. It has a children and family centre in Cork’s Meade Street that opened two years ago.
“We would very much like to develop a group service in Cork.”
Christine says that many women, considered to be “fallen” women in what was a narrow-minded society, suffered with their mental health.
“Some women have said to us that they’ve suffered from anxiety and depression over the years, especially women who felt they couldn’t confide in their subsequent husbands /partners and children. They might say they’ve been married for the last 20 years and never got the courage to tell their husbands about the baby they had at 16, 17 or 18. Even still, we get calls from women who’ve had babies (outside marriage) in relatively recent times who still feel a sense of stigma and secrecy about their experience.”
Addressing the recent controversy about the sealing of records for 30 years of mother and baby homes, Christine says: “We’re very pleased to hear that the minister has confirmed that people can apply for their records under GDPR. But we’d also be hoping that there will be a follow through on information and tracing legislation that has long been promised. Hopefully, adopted adults will be allowed access to their original birth certificates.”
For information on the Barnardos post-adoption service, go to www.barnardos.ie/pas.
For anyone affected by issues raised in this article, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.