Pain of adoption still raw, for mothers and children

By Katherine Fenech

October 18, 2010 /

When Julie found out she was pregnant at 18 she was so afraid of the consequences she left WA, went East, and ended up hitch hiking from Sydney to Queensland to have her illegitimate child.

Julie, who did not want her surname published because her own mother still fears the stigma attached to unwed mothers, was one of thousands of women forced to give up their children through aggressive adoption practices in public hospitals between the 1940s and early 1980s.

When the West Australian government tomorrow becomes the first in the nation to apologise to generations of single mothers who were stopped from seeing, touching or naming their babies immediately after they were born, Julie will be in State Parliament.

The women were also asked to sign adoption papers earlier than five days after they gave birth. The practices were illegal under the Adoption of Children Act, but were widespread at public hospitals across the country.

Fearful of her strict parents, Julie fled WA for Sydney when she realised she was pregnant. She worked to save enough money to survive and go to hospital to have her child.

Utterly alone and without any support, she hitched rides across the Queensland border and had her first and only child there.

As soon as Monique was born, Julie said nurses swooped and took the little girl away. They met her inquiries about her daughter’s well-being with terse replies.

After days of consistent pressure from nurses, Julie relinquished her right to take her daughter home, signing adoption papers in exchange for a chance to glimpse Monique for the first time before giving her away.

"I was too scared to come home because I just felt the shame on my family, and my father had been very strict," Julie said.

"I thought I wouldn't be welcome anywhere."

Even her first look at Monique didn't allow for any bonding. She was encased in a plastic crib so her mother couldn't touch her.

"I went and sat outside by myself and cried for a little while and then I just went and got my things and left," she said.

"I can’t say exactly how my life would have been had I not fallen pregnant and gone through the pregnancy on my own at 18 with no support.

"I’ve never had any other children, I didn't marry until after my daughter had found me and I guess I just didn't feel I had a right to marriage and more children so it's been quite a journey to come to terms with it all."

Julie, now 57, guarded her secret closely until her 40th birthday, when a friend told her it would be a shame if she never had children.

"After a few of those conversations I said 'I’ve had a child' and within a month my daughter found me and I didn't think I should keep this a secret any more," she said.

"I went to tell my mother but my father had died a few years before. My mother said 'I wonder what she looks like?' and then said 'I don't think anyone needs to know about this'."

Julie and Monique's reconciliation was fraught and their relationship was initially a rocky one. Monique, who lives in northern NSW, had a son of her own at 14 and could not comprehend how a loving mother could give up her child.

"Abandonment is a very big thing and (adopted children) never grow up having themselves reflected back in the people around them," she said.

"We've had quite a journey my daughter and I. It's taken 17 years. She was very angry and just couldn't understand, and I was reacting with my own guilt and shame."

A daughter’s story

Work is the only thing stopping Samantha Tarling from travelling the 1000 kilometres between Wiluna and Perth to see Premier Colin Barnett move the apology motion.

"It has occurred to me how powerful it will be and how much it will mean to me," Ms Tarling said.

"That someone is saying 'we acknowledge your pain and hurt through the separation'."

Ms Tarling's unwed mother gave her daughter to a Port Hedland couple who thought they couldn't have children, after she found herself six months pregnant and working as a barmaid at the local hotel.

Her mother had already had a child, which was being looked after by her parents, when a doctor sent her on holiday to stave off depression. It was during that holiday that she became pregnant with Ms Tarling.

"I was told when I was eight years old that I was adopted and that just blew my whole world apart," she said.

"There was such a closeness between me and my adoptive parents, but the very substance of my identity and my life had been messed with."

The couple later went on to have two children of their own and Ms Tarling, 44, said that while she had a good upbringing and felt loved, there was still the "open wound of my relinquishment".

"My life's been really screwed up by adoption, by relinquishment of my birth mother, but I look at my birth family now and I think my life could have been as equally screwed up there," she said.

"I met my birth mother for the first time at 18 and it just opened up a wound. It was a real hollow in my life and a whole can of worms came out."

Ms Tarling said she felt angry that her mother, who lives in Queensland, didn't seem to be carrying any scars from the adoption.

"I had real issues with trusting the universe, trusting people and being in relationships because my first cellular memory is that the very person who loves you will leave you," she said.

It took a lot of hard work and two decades of lost contact before they could begin to heal the relationship. They now they speak regularly.

"The bottom line is that it’s about the crime of separating a mother and her child and the social behaviours of those days."


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