I’m not sure my mother knew how to tell me about the child that she’d adopted out prior to meeting my father. It wasn’t quite ‘pass me the salt and by the way you have another brother’; rather the words fell out amongst our idle chatter during the perfunctory act of changing a bed together. It wasn’t until I saw her tears that I understood the brevity of what she was saying.
My mother’s greatest fear, she would share with me later, was that my brother and I would reject her based on this revelation. Nearly three decades on, shame was still the overwhelming emotion associated with this event for my mother.
One Christmas in my early 20s, my mother was contacted by the son she had given up for adoption, revealing at the time that she had “sensed” that he was coming. It was organised that we would all meet on Christmas day.
It’s a surreal feeling to discover a new part to something that you believed was otherwise complete, such as family; though contrary to my mother’s fears I was exhilarated by the news that I had another sibling and began to re-imagine my life with an older, older brother.
Meanwhile, my mother was fraught with anxiety wondering if Shane (his birth name) would reappear in her life only to disappear again once his curiosity was sated.
My mother was twenty and still living at home when she fell pregnant to her boyfriend. When her parents found out about the pregnancy they enacted a two-step process to alleviate the burden: 1. Get rid of the boyfriend 2. Get rid of the baby.
My mother’s boyfriend’s fate wasn’t cement boots exactly but the outcome was to be the same with my grandfather coercing him to get on a ship with a one-way ticket back to Italy. He did just that and was never seen nor heard of again.
To understand the scorn that was levelled at unmarried pregnant women in the 60s and 70s, my mother was called a slut by her own mother when she expressed a desire to go out and socialise while pregnant but not showing.
To avoid further embarrassment, at three months pregnant, my mother was sent to a convent in Melbourne three hundred kilometres away from her home for a clandestine birth and face saving adoption. She would be amongst strangers in unfamiliar surrounds when she gave birth to her child.
After the birth of her child, my mother was given the option of spending five days with her baby, which she opted for. When I asked her recently what it felt like the very last time she saw her baby, I struggled to articulate the question because of the pain it might cause her. She said in no more than a whisper, “it was heartbreaking” adding that words just can’t describe the feeling. She went on to say that she felt she had no choice but to go through with the adoption because of the profound lack of support. Subsequently, she cried everyday for many months afterwards until she “just had to get on with it”.
My mother belongs to a stoic generation. She suffered chronic, debilitating headaches for twenty-five years and I sometimes wonder how much of this is attributed to the stress and trauma of losing a child through adoption.
The Australian Institute for Family Studies approximates that adoptions peaked at 10,000 in Australia between 1971-1972. As a result of advocacy in the 70s, the Supporting Mother’s Benefit was introduced which also offered support to unmarried women. With this reform and improved contraception becoming more widely available, a constant decline in adoptions can be noted with 5,000 in 1776 to just 384 adoptions in 2010-2011. The AIFS is still trying to ascertain the cumulative damages that the adoptive process has caused to many of those involved.
As women have persistently advocated for change and reform over the decades, we find ourselves today in a position where we have more autonomy over our bodies and choice in regards to unplanned pregnancy. If it needs to be spelt out again, this means that less women have to suffer the trauma of unsafe abortions or the gruelling experience of the adoptive process.
With a recent influx of articles on sexism and the inequalities that still plague women, I see a lot of comments from men expressing their disdain for “yet another article” on sexism or feminism. But you only need to get a whiff of conservatism to know that women do not need to shut up but rather they need to keep telling their stories and meanwhile advocate for a fair and equal world.
In terms of meeting my brother on that Christmas day, unfortunately, it did not spark a connection. We endeavoured to stay in touch over the years and had several other meetings, which failed to inspire any cohesive relationship. Nonetheless, my mother still uses a photo of Shane as a bookmark in each current book that she is reading which she keeps on her bedside table.