Story of a search

I knew I wasn’t theirs and it had always seemed perfectly normal to me; it was natural not to look like my parents, or feel a sense of family.  Then when I was eight, dad handed me a small brown envelope addressed to him and mum. In the top left corner in his hesitant hand and blue ink was the simple word “DETAILS”. I had watched as he fetched the small package from a box on the top shelf of the cupboard that housed his coats and jackets and now we were sat on my parents’ bed, side by side. From inside the envelope I drew a folded and faded yellowing piece of paper. Ink from the type was visible on the reverse, and the origami performed to originally get this letter into the tiny envelope had to be undone.  Dated 25.1.67, the note informed my parents that in six days they could travel from their home near Birmingham to “meet” a baby at 12 noon in central London, with “a view to taking her home”. This was my first glimpse at my history and I read that I was three weeks premature, and was considered a “very pretty, small baby, with good features, flat ears, and a well-shaped head.”  I also learnt that my name at that time was Anna Louise Munro.

The rest of the letter was only two short paragraphs, one about my mother, one concerning my father. Reading on I discovered that my birth mother was then an unmarried, attractively slim, 19-year-old Australian who’s “very musical and also good at sports, horse-riding in particular”. It said that my birth father was British born but half Spanish, also musical as he played the guitar, and he was an engineer in the Merchant Navy, having gone to sea at 16. The letter went on in a manner that I still find terse; “The girl met him on the boat coming to England.  She did not see him after that and he never knew about the baby.”

I cannot recall now how I felt on reading these few short lines about my start in life and parentage, but I am certain I did not anticipate how life-changing these snippets of information would eventually be for me, nor did I stop to appreciate the huge impact on my adoptive parents when they had first received the news.  My eight-year-old self accepted it all purely at face value, but I could soon recount that letter word for word. That status quo lasted for over twenty years. I knew that those people from the letter were out there somewhere but they were one dimensional, stuck in that sixties moment when the letter was written. Furthermore, for me growing up, having one set of parents was trouble enough – I didn’t need anymore!

When I turned 30 I began to be more curious, I wanted to discover more about me, about my birth parents, and I started the process of learning how that could happen. A national charity called Norcap existed at that time for people affected by the triangle of adoption; birth parents, adoptive parents as well as adoptees. It had a history of making connections for those separated at birth – a reunion of the lost family.

After joining Norcap the next step was to apply see my adoption records and arrange to get my birth certificate. In England it’s a legal requirement for an adoptee placed for adoption before 1975 to be counselled by social services prior to receiving their records because before this date all adoptions were closed and no contact was thought ever to be made. I sat through this interview with almost perfunctory ease and my adoption records and birth certificate were requested.

My ease in the situation abruptly changed when my birth certificate arrived on a cold day in January. Having spent all my life thinking I was fostered from birth, I was overwhelmed, and sobbed as I found out my mother’s address was the same as mine when she registered the birth: we were still living together! This meant that I spent my first Christmas and New Year with my birth mother.  (When I got my records I found out we had been discharged from hospital on Christmas Eve, two weeks after I was born, and had then gone to a mother and baby home where we stayed until January 4nd.) This reaction was to become familiar: new information would rock my world, my view of myself had to shift and I had to rewrite part of my life story.

The local social services were proficient and quickly found my adoption records, a feat that amazes me still – paper records from thirty years ago found in what I imagine to be a very large warehouse!  On the day of my appointment I went to the small social services office in the centre of town during my lunch break from work.

Here the revelations multiplied; I found out my birth father’s name (of course it wasn’t on my birth certificate as he was not there then); I found out that he was married – the “details” letter had said that he was unmarried; I found out about the adoption process and got to see the application for adoption as filled in by my birth mother; I found out my grandmother had come over from Australia and was with her daughter at the time I was being handed over for adoption. I remember the social worker sitting with me and asking me how I felt about all this – the papers I think she meant – I wasn’t sure but it was too immense to comment on the entire story in that cramped upstairs office – the whole thing felt surreal. I remember she was appalled at the lack of information and wanted to comfort me that there would be more nowadays, including photos and maybe a letter for me from my birth mother. That seemed too much to hope for!

Most disconcertingly of all at that time I found out that my birth mother was in fact from Papua New Guinea, and, although Australian, not from the mainland as I had previously thought – again, information in the “details” letter didn’t match the reality. I felt a loss of identity or possibly homeland – another big shift for me to adjust to –  I had spent my childhood with a large map of Australia on my wall, but only the mainland. This was not, apparently, the right map!

From this meeting I had the excitement of getting to take home the letter written by my birth mother passing on my birth certificate to the adoption agency. This was my first real thing of hers; I treasured it and read it often, trying to imagine the person who wrote it. It was the only original I was allowed to keep – all the rest were diligently photocopied and presented to me, I treasured them just the same. Information had been rationed and any new piece vital at this stage, I felt.

After this heady and life changing time I didn’t do anything else for six years. Looking back now it seems I needed to come to terms with all that I had learnt, and integrate this into my life and history. I wasn’t really contemplating actually searching for a birth parent, let alone finding one!

I stayed a member of Norcap, and read all the newsletter’s reunion stories, often crying at ones that tugged at my feelings. Norcap had my name on both the National contact register and the one maintained by Norcap but neither had any matches. I remember getting the acknowledgement letter of my entry in each case and being really disappointed that my birth mother wasn’t looking for me.

Gradually I came to thinking about how it would be for the letter to arrive saying there was a match on the contact register, or how it would feel to see my name and my birth mother’s in the reunion page in the newsletter. I started to want this more and more…

In the spring of 2003 I went to Norcap and asked them to help me. I searched the records in the Norcap offices near Oxford and talked to a researcher, but to no avail. Even though I was born in London and adopted through a UK adoption agency it would appear that my birth mother had gone back overseas. Norcap staff suggested that I contact a researcher in Australia and recommended one to me – then it all seemed to happen at once. Within a week of the researcher receiving my information, she had made an electoral roll match that appeared to be my birth mother. I tried to work out how I felt about this and what I should do; this was not so easy.

During my search, I had been in contact with a couple of Aussies who had lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG) around the time my birth mother did. The contact was made through a website forum, where ex-PNG residents reminisced.  Interestingly, all the people who helped me from that site were touched by adoption issues sometime in their lives; there was a lot of empathy and understanding around. At the same time as I got the message from the researcher that my birth mother was alive and well (a great relief, but a scary reality too) I got news, via the forum, that she had an entry on the Aussie version of Friends Reunited on the web. When I looked up the entry it validated what the researcher said – we had a match!

In November, after applying to Norcap for an intermediary I took the step of asking that contact be made. I was sure now that this was what I wanted, and it couldn’t happen soon enough, although I was terrified that my birth mother would not want to know.  Happily, this was not the case and she replied by e-mail to my intermediary, Wendy, the very day she got the letter, saying she was surprised to receive it now it had finally come but had been expecting it. Margaret wanted to know how long it had taken to find her and had thought about looking for me, but resisted, not knowing what I knew of my history, or even if I knew I was adopted. I really appreciated this thoughtfulness given my disappointment of not finding a match on the contact registers; it helped me to hear she’d been thinking of me.

Wendy and Margaret had along phone conversation and then Wendy rang me to debrief. I was sat in my car outside my therapist’s house when I took the call – probably an appropriate place to be!  My heart thundering as I tried to take notes to record all Wendy was telling me. I still have them, written balancing on the steering wheel while juggling my mobile phone; they feel like the first precious things of contact and connection that I had been longing for.

Now there was a more tangible, three-dimensional history. I began filling in the blanks by email and putting the facts straight about my first weeks of life, although this job never seems to end as it takes some time to be comfortable asking tricky or very personal questions. It can take a while to absorb the answers too.

I am excited to learn every little thing and it was an amazing time, emails flew back and forth in flurries – the honeymoon period of reunion. I had to come to term with more big shifts in perception, such as being the oldest of four kids in my birth mother’s family, whereas I am the younger of two in my adoptive one. I also now know that she did see my father after the trip over from Australia, but didn’t stay in touch when it turned out he was married, and she says she still didn’t tell him about me. (I have more information about him nowadays too – but that’s a story for another time…)

In addition, I got to see people who look like me for the first time in my life.  My birthday in 2003 was very special as I received photos of my birth mother and new-found sisters; they were a marvellous birthday present.

Finally, I had a family I could call my own.