Fear of rejection: the first meeting between adoptees and their mothers can be traumatic for both. Photo: Getty Images
We are all born with an identity; one that usually begins in our mother's arms and continues to evolve through life. But for many adopted children, they often feel like a crucial part of their story is missing.
In her book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, author Jeanette Winterson writes that being adopted feels "like reading a book with the first few pages missing". For many adoptees, reuniting with their birth family can help retrieve those missing pages.
Isabel Andrews, co-ordinator of Adoption Jigsaw, says identity issues are often a catalyst for reunion. "It's a normal human desire to want to know where you came from," she says. "A lot of adoptees talk about feeling more grounded after reunion. For the first time they have a sense of where they fit."
Kate Merson with her birth mother, Bronwyn. Photo: Damien Pleming
The number of Australian adoptions peaked at 9798 in 1971-72. A 2012 survey of adoptees by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that almost 63 per cent had made contact with their birth mother, with more than half of those maintaining an ongoing relationship.
Realistic expectations and preparation are important in determining reunion outcomes, says Andrews. "There's a lot of fear and vulnerability in reunions. You can't be unadopted and mothers don't get their baby back."
Even positive reunions have difficult aspects, Andrews says. "All reunions are emotionally complex experiences."
Louisa Gladstone with her birth mother, Marcelina, in Chile.
Kate Merson, 42
Reunited with her birth mother in Melbourne when she was 28.
"I had a happy family life with three older brothers and felt very loved. As I got older, I contemplated searching for my birth mother, but was worried about my adoptive mother's reaction; I didn't want to hurt her.
Shortly after I applied for my adoption records, I received a letter from the Department of Human Services advising my birth sister was looking for me. I remember I was shaking; I was ecstatic. A letter and a phone call later, I came face to face with my birth mother. I met her on New Year's Eve, 2000.
I was terribly nervous. I desperately hoped she would like me. I wore my nicest shirt and trousers. My partner helped me button my shirt as my fingers were trembling. We met at my birth sister's house. I practically ran up the driveway. My birth mother opened the door, hugged me and burst into tears.
My first reaction was, 'That's where I get my face from.' I was so happy that I looked like her. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much. Our speech patterns were remarkably similar, and conversation flowed. She held my hand and revealed the circumstances around my adoption, in 1972.
It was the story of so many women from that time - she was young and single. She described feeling numb at my birth. She chose not to hold or even see me after I was born, as she knew she wouldn't be able to let me go. She told me she thought of me often, admitting to moments of grief, particularly around my birthday, which was when I wondered most about her, too. She explained that she didn't actively search for me because she was terrified I might reject her and she couldn't bear the possibility of losing me again.
After many hours, we said goodbye and I knew it was the beginning of something special; it felt like new love. But after the initial rush, I crashed. Those first years were an emotional roller coaster. I realised how much I had missed out on and it hurt. I recognised there were issues rooted in my relinquishment and adoption, and saw a therapist who helped me identify my fear of abandonment. A deep relationship with my birth mother took years to build because of our lack of history, but we've developed our own history now.
My adoptive mother never expected me to reunite with my biological family. She had trouble accepting that I had been emotionally hurt because of my adoption, and this nearly destroyed our relationship. We are fine now, but I don't talk about my biological family to her. She has no interest in meeting them, which is a shame, but I respect her decision.
Meeting my birth mother and family is the most important thing that's happened to me. It wasn't without difficulties, but I feel more like myself now than I have my entire life."
Madge Fletcher, 55
Reunited with her birth mother in Scotland when she was 39.
"I always suspected I was adopted. With my red hair and fair complexion I looked very different from the rest of my family. My adoptive parents told me when I was 10.
My adoptive mother died when I was 17, which gave me the opportunity to think about finding my mother without the guilt. It was difficult, though, as records were not readily available. Then, when I was in my 30s, the adoption laws changed and I got hold of my birth record. It listed her name and a town in Scotland. I called the local priest from the town and he contacted her.
We wrote aerogrammes to each other for six months. My mother had never told anyone about me and so wasn't sure about meeting, but I pushed for it and flew to the UK. She wouldn't meet in Scotland, so we arranged to meet at a pub in England. I was so nervous I barely slept. I got up early and ironed my clothes. I wore black velvet pants and a silk shirt. I arrived early and drank whisky to calm my nerves.
I recognised her immediately. It was a bizarre feeling; I couldn't believe our similarities. I had never experienced looking like family so it was exhilarating. After a tentative embrace, we talked for hours and I noticed we had similar facial expressions. We also shared a common sense of irreverence, cheekiness and a love of travel, food and music. Similarly, we discovered we were both feminists, and left-handed.
We spent three days together, eating, drinking, walking and driving through beautiful countryside. It was almost like falling in love. I felt like we connected, but it was restrained. She offered few details about my adoption other than she was unmarried and didn't feel she could have a baby on her own. She was heavily sedated during labour and didn't see me when I was born.
I didn't think I would have expectations about meeting her, but I did. I wanted her to accept I existed. I wanted to get to know my roots, but she wouldn't take me to her village or tell anyone about me. She couldn't embrace me in the way I yearned.
The farewell was hard. We hugged and cried and I talked to her about a 'next time'. She said she'd come to Melbourne and my heart exploded as she drove off.
We saw each other another three times, but I wanted more than she could give. She stayed with me in Melbourne a few years ago but it didn't work. When she left it was obvious that we probably wouldn't meet again.
We don't have contact any more, but I have no regrets. Meeting her is still the best thing I've done in my life."
Louisa Gladstone, 32
Reunited with her birth mother in Chile when she was 25.
"Finding my birth mother was something I had always wanted to do. I was adopted from an orphanage in Chile when I was just seven weeks old. I grew up in Sydney in a loving family with two brothers but, like many adoptees, I struggled with feelings of guilt, abandonment and lack of identity. Looking completely different to my family didn't help my sense of belonging.
At 25, I knew I was ready to find my birth mother. Before then I didn't have the courage to look; I was scared of being rejected again. My adoptive mother, Susan, travelled with me to Chile.
The only information we had was my birth mother's name and date of birth. Incredibly, we located her within a day of arriving in Santiago. With the help of the local police we found her phone number. She had never told a soul about me so she was completely shocked. Hearing her voice was mind-blowing. I couldn't understand a word she was saying but I recognised her voice; it was the same as mine. I couldn't speak through the tears. I fell to the floor.
Our reunion was emotional. We met the next day at a Santiago park. I didn't sleep a wink the night before. I was so curious to see if we looked alike. I took her a bunch of flowers. We hugged and sobbed as we gripped each other's hands. That moment was life-changing.
We sat on a park bench for a long time while my mother spoke, never releasing my hands. Susan noticed we had the same hands. I recognised the same ear lobes and nose. Through our interpreter she explained her story, one she'd kept secret for 25 years. I was born in a hospital, my mother was 26. The circumstances around her pregnancy were sensitive and she confided in a priest, who suggested adoption.
She said it was a very hard decision to give me up, and although she had never expected to see me again, she did say she had thought of me over the years. Her raw emotions gave me the sense that she was relieved, happy and at peace after meeting me. For so long, I had been plagued with questions of why, but all that instantly disappeared.
On our third and final meeting we met on our own. The language barrier wasn't an issue. Simply being together, looking into her eyes and feeling her touch, was all I had ever wanted.
It was hard to say goodbye. She gave me a necklace, engraved in Spanish, and placed it around my neck. I haven't taken it off in seven years.
Our relationship hasn't really developed since meeting because of the barriers of distance and language. I can't get to know her on a deeper level, and I can't turn to her for motherly advice. We communicate via my sister in Chile, the only family member with internet access. I am going over in the next five years for a family reunion.
The moment the policeman in that tiny Santiago police station said he'd found her, I felt like I said goodbye to a part of myself and hello to someone who is more content and complete. My reunion answered all my questions and made me whole again."