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My first daughter was taken from me at 18, but I never gave up hope of meeting her again

Adopted children shouldn’t be prevented from contacting their natural mothers, Irish First Mothers founder Kathy McMahon writes.

Kathy McMahon

MY FIRST DAUGHTER was taken for adoption just a few days after I gave birth to her in 1975.

I had become pregnant aged just shy of 18. And like most of my contemporaries, I had been blissfully ignorant about even the basic facts of reproduction and had no access to contraception.

After being confined in the Good Shepherd Convent in Dunboyne for four months, I was transferred to Holles Street Hospital in Dublin for the birth. A week later, on the day I was being discharged, my beautiful girl was taken without warning by a nurse – while my attention was distracted.

Still craving human affection and love, within 18 months I found myself in Saint Patrick’s mother and baby home on the Navan Road – pregnant with my second child. I suppose that was when I turned into a fighter. I resisted the pressure, and kept and raised my second daughter.

Almost 30 years later, I was thankfully reunited with my adopted girl – only days before her wedding. That meeting began a process of healing which eventually led me to set up Irish First Mothers, a Facebook peer support group for natural mothers affected by adoption issues.

Demeaning approach

So I was surprised to read a paternalistic article on TheJournal.ie last week by an adopted man, Paul Redmond, who presumes to be an authority on what is best for us women who lost our children to adoption.

He wrote that that the Irish government’s proposed new law on adoption tracing should offer mothers the “protection” of a veto to prevent our lost children from contacting us. He explains this and his troubled re-connection with his own natural mother by depicting us mothers as “elderly” and “living in fear”.

I was subjected to forced adoption of my child, and I am far from elderly or fearful. Neither are the more than 50-strong Irish First Mothers group so infirm of mind that we need Redmond to speak on our best interests.

In fact, our ages range from the early 40s upwards. Our relative youth confounds the current stereotype. Forced adoptions were taking place up until the late 1990s. Therefore many of the affected mothers are still some way off from claiming our state pension, thank you very much.

Our First Mothers group is diametrically opposed to Redmond’s position. In our consultations with government ministers and in public, we have called for open adoption records and access to information immediately – with no requirement that adopted people sign a demeaning statutory declaration.

Philomena Lee supports this position, as does the Adoption Rights Alliance. We all believe adopted people have a human right to know their origin in fullness and without hindrance.

Reflecting the social climate of 2015, the vast majority of us mothers seek some level of contact with our children, and have no desire be “protected” from them by a still-interfering state. We look forward to potentially joyful re-connection and reconciliation with our own children.

national-maternity-hospitals-3-630x422 Dublin's Holles Street Hospital, where Kathy gave birth to her first daughter Source: Photocall Ireland

Hard cases make bad laws

Redmond has publicly described how a 45-minute phone conversation with his natural mother ended in her decision to terminate contact. He now says he respects that decision, though painful.

I sympathise with his dilemma. And I am sure that he must cherish every minute of their too-brief exchange.

But ironically, a contact veto in law might well have denied him even those few minutes. His mother might have opted out of potential contact in advance – and that brief phone call would not have happened. His own unfortunate outcome shows how sensitively we must handle these issues.

Indeed, we find the whole notion of a “contact veto” to be a crude instrument. The vast majority of mothers are very open to contact from the outset.

But most of the few mothers who are initially hesitant shift their view over time, if approached with care. Some may start with written contact, then phone contact – and the overwhelming majority eventually embrace personal contact and a fruitful reunion.

By framing this evolution of attitude as a formal decision in black and white terms, in the unsympathetic context of an “official” written form, we may set back the very reconciliations which should be our public health goal.

Recall the saying that “hard cases make bad law”. Redmond’s failed maternal re-connection was a hard case – but legislating based on his rare experience would make for very bad law indeed.

No more secrets and lies

The government and some commentators have developed the fallacious notion that mothers who were incarcerated in mother and baby homes had either sought or were offered so-called “privacy”. That’s plain wrong.

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Here’s a reality check. My abiding memory of my incarceration was of my fellow mothers screaming in anguish following the forced removal of their babies.

It’s a sick joke to claim that we were ever offered “privacy” in the form of a guarantee our children would never contact us.

The complete reverse is true. We were threatened to never attempt contact ourselves.

The state that oversaw that criminally unconstitutional regime shows how little it has learned as it aims to erect new legal barriers between us and our own children. Is that really necessary or beneficial for the vast majority of women?

Contrary to general perception, the Supreme Court in its most relevant decisions issued no blanket guarantee on adoption privacy and actually afforded the Oireachtas great latitude in legislating for the common good.

Confidence trumps fear

We estimate from our direct collective experience that over 98% of mothers would today be open to contact at some level. We would serve the common good by legislating to undo the harm inflicted on them.

A socially-created shame was layered over a woman’s right to give life. The real shame lay with those who sundered the precious bond between mother and child.

Let’s fully dispel that shame by actively encouraging the healing of family separation. It’s time for the adoption community to move forward in confidence, consigning fear and shame to the past.

Kathy McMahon is the founder of Irish First Mothers. Read her full story on TheJournal.ie here. If you are a natural mother affected by adoption, you can access private peer support from other mothers at the group’s Facebook page here

About the author:

Kathy McMahon

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