#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 10°C Wednesday 18 May 2022
Advertisement

'My mother didn't want people to know I existed': One woman's mission to find her identity

The woman who set up a register to reconnect people who passed through the Mother and Baby Home system in the Netherlands wants to share her knowledge with Ireland.

SEARCHING FOR INFORMATION and documents about your early life is often a difficult, isolating process for adopted people.

There are generally many roadblocks and setbacks as people try to find out information about their birth, early life and medical history.

People in Ireland are often told they can’t get access to certain files – or that they don’t exist in the first place. Many people in the Netherlands have gone through the same process.

According to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in the Republic of Ireland, some 56,000 females and 57,000 children spent time in the 18 institutions under investigation. It is estimated that a further 25,000 unmarried mothers and a larger number of children spent time in county homes not under the remit of the inquiry.

Thousands of women and children also passed through similar institutions in the Netherlands. Many of these facilities were also run by religious orders.

Monique Weustink Schmeitz (56) was sent to a Catholic-run children’s home in Halfweg, a town about 10km from central Amsterdam, shortly after she was born. She was adopted before she turned one.

She always knew she was adopted but as an adult struggled to get information about her early life and family history.

Monique is a member of a number of online groups for adopted people and keeps track of what’s happening in other countries in terms of legislation and inquiries into certain institutions.

December 1965, Kindertehuis in Halfweg, etenstijd. Monique as a baby Source: Monique Weustink Schmeitz

Needless to say, the publication of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland in January – and the subsequent criticism by many survivors and adopted people – was of interest to her.

Indeed, an inquiry into how similar institutions in the Netherlands were run in the 20th century recently stalled amid concerns about the approach being taken. A fresh investigation is currently being set up.

“Although I was born in the Netherlands in the 1960s, I know that this history has many similarities with how these mothers and their children were treated in Ireland,” Monique tells The Journal.

“Reports regularly appear in the media about adoptees who are looking for their birth certificate and documents from the time they stayed in a home. Unfortunately, that information is not always available, nor is it always released when it is available.”

Monique was born in 1965. Her mother was Dutch and her father was from South America. Her parents were in a relationship but, Monique says, her mother’s family did not approve.

“They had a relationship for quite a long time, but it didn’t work out well. My mother’s family didn’t approve of it. There were some complications, so in the end my mother decided to give me up for adoption.

“Straight after I was born I was brought to an orphanage that was run by nuns. I stayed there for less than a year and then I was adopted,” Monique tells the The Journal.

She always knew she was adopted and – because she was a mixed race child being brought up by a white couple – so did everyone else.  

“Everybody could see that my parents, my adoptive parents, were not my real parents. So I always knew I was adopted,” Monique notes.

“I had a very nice and warm upbringing,” she recalls, but adds she has “always been very curious about who took care of me in the home where I stayed, what I looked like as a baby and what I was like as a child, and what happened in the home”.

Bled ( toen nog) Joegoslavië 1968 met mijn moeder. Mijn vader heeft de foto gemaakt. Mijn ouders gingen zo vaak mogelijk op reis. Monique pictured with her adoptive mother in 1968 Source: Monique Weustink Schmeitz

“In the 1950s to 1980s, many children were given up by their often single mothers, who were often under great pressure. The children then ended up in orphanages or mother and baby homes.

“As I got older, I became very curious about my background, about my mother, about my father, and also the reason why all this happened. I started to search for them when I was about 20.”

Meeting her mother

Monique sought help from Fiom, a Dutch organisation that helps adopted people trace their roots. They didn’t make much progress in locating her father but were able to find out who her mother was relatively quickly.

“Looking for my mother was not really a problem. They found her kind of quickly, but my mother didn’t want to get in touch with me.”

This was understandably disappointing for Monique but, after a couple of years, her mother agreed to meet.

“I spoke to her in person once when I was 24. And that conversation was … it was strange. How can I describe it?

“She was so reluctant to meet me. And when you watch meetings of children with their parents (on TV), very often, you see them fall into each other’s arms. But in our case, this didn’t happen. We shook hands. It was a bit more formal.

“I could see we were related because we had similar features, we were the same height. There were some similarities, but also differences.”

Monique says her mother was “nice” but also distant. She made it clear that she did not want to develop a relationship with her daughter.

She told me about her life. Shortly after she had me, she had two other children. And it was very important for her that my existence would always be a secret. She didn’t want her other children to know about my existence. So that also made the conversation a little bit difficult and she was holding a little bit back.

“She didn’t want to tell anything about my father but eventually, at the end of our meeting, she wrote his name down on a piece of paper. So at least I had the name.”

Monique says, despite the rejection she felt during this meeting, she tried to understand where her mother was coming from.

“Especially now that I’m much older, I can understand her feelings better and how she must have felt about the situation when I was born. I feel sad for her about it. I know it must have been with her for her whole life. And keeping such a secret must be so difficult. I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like for her.”

When the meeting ended, Monique’s mother made it clear that she didn’t want to meet her again.

Monique was hurt but accepted her mother’s wishes for several years. When she was in 30s and had her own children, she sent photos of them to her mother. She did it in a sealed envelope and did not make it obvious who the photos were from, so that “nobody could ever know that I was her daughter”.

Monique had hoped that her mother may want to get to know her grandsons, but this was not the case.  

“When she received the photos, she called me. She was very, very upset. And she told me in that phone conversation that I shouldn’t do that ever again, that I should let her be and never contact her.

That was very hard. It looked like the room I was in went totally black. It hit me very hard. Because it felt like she put me away for the second time.

Many adopted people experience a so-called second rejection if and when they find their parents as an adult but their mother or father does not want to meet to talk to them.

Monique knows this has been the case for many adopted people.

“It’s not the story you want to tell to other people because you feel a bit shameful about it. You feel sad and also angry. I felt ashamed. It was very difficult.”

Monique tried to find out where her father was over the years but had little success, despite now knowing his name. “In the years before the internet, I just couldn’t find him. We tried but we couldn’t find him,” she recalls.

Diplomauitreiking Z- verpleegkundige 1989 Leuke opleiding en super tijd gehad met klasgenoten. ik mocht de speech voorlezen. Monique pictured in 1989 Source: Monique Weustink Schmeitz

Many of her questions remained unanswered but she got on with her life – raising her sons Justus and Cyril with her husband Roy, and working as a nurse for people with intellectual disabilities.

Things changed about eight years ago when Roy searched Monique’s mother’s name online without her knowledge. One of the first search results was her death notice. He, of course, told Monique. This was a shock for her.

She didn’t have a relationship with her mother but still had to grieve. Her hopes that her mother would one day change her mind and want to meet again would now never come to pass.  

Finding out about her mother’s death spurred her on to seek out her father once again. Eventually she found where some of his relatives lived. Sadly, by this stage it was also too late to meet him.

“In the end, I finally found some family members of my father but I found out that my father has passed away. So I’ve never met him.”

This was another blow for Monique and some of her father’s relatives did not want to meet her. However, her half-sister, Andrea, did. The pair immediately bonded and now have a close relationship.

“I am very, very happy that I found her because we are very close now. She looks like me, which is kind of strange but nice. We have a very close relationship now.”

Unlike the meeting with her mother years before, when she met Andrea it was very “natural” and the two “clicked” straight away.

“She lives in Amsterdam, I live near Rotterdam so we haven’t met in a while but we chat a lot. It has been difficult to meet over the past year due to the coronavirus but we met many times before that. The bond, the connection, between us is great.”

Her two sons, now 24 and 23, have also developed a relationship with Andrea’s son.

“She has one son, who is the same age as my oldest son. They also have that connection, which is nice. My oldest son and her son look a lot like each other. It is remarkable, or maybe not – they are cousins afterall.”

Her father tried to find her

Andrea told Monique that their father often spoke about her and her existence was never a secret. He told his other children they had an older sister whom he hoped they would meet one day.

Andrea also told Monique that their father had tried to keep her when she was born.

I found out that when my mother was giving me up for adoption, my father was very much against it. He didn’t want it. He wanted me to live with his mother, my grandmother, which is very common in the Netherlands – children sometimes grow up with their grandparents.

However, Monique’s father’s wishes were not taken into account. It was difficult for her to hear that she could have had a very different life and been raised with her biological family.

Through documents she received after her mother died, Monique found out that her father and another man showed up at her school when she was about five years old. She doesn’t know if he just wanted to see if she was alright, or if he wanted to try to take her with him.

Either way, the teachers intervened and the police were called. The men left when asked to do so. As a child, Monique was oblivious. But, when she found out this information, she recalled an incident where she was suddenly rushed from one classroom to another one day. She never knew why until she saw the documents.

“Maybe he had accepted the adoption and just wanted to see if I was okay. But I didn’t know this until just a couple of years ago. I didn’t know about it as a child.

“What I remember is that one day I was dragged out of my classroom and put into another classroom. I had to sit on the lap of the teacher that I didn’t know and I started to cry. They gave me some toys.

“That’s what I remember, but I never knew what the reason was. But now it makes sense to me.”

Monique now lives near Rotterdam but grew up in Hazerswoude-Dorp, Netherlands, a small village near The Hague. Her father lived in Amsterdam at the time and had travelled to her school in a bid to see her.

Monique had a happy childhood and loved her adoptive parents but, naturally, has contemplated how different her life could have been if she grew up with her biological family.

“Eventually I got documents and there was a record of how my father kept searching for me even after I was born. It’s a quite sad story. What hurts me the most about it is that the institution didn’t even investigate if it would have been possible for me to grow up in my own family. That still makes me sad and also angry.”

However, knowing that her father fought to keep her also gave her a sense of comfort.

“I’m very happy that he [tried to keep me]. He told his other children about me, that he had another child. He always told them, there’s another one. So it was not a secret in his family. Not at all.”

Monique was given access to documents about her early life after her mother died. Many adopted people in Ireland have only been granted access to certain documents after their mother has died because she requested that her identity remain secret while she was alive.

“It’s very difficult (to get information), especially when your mother is still alive. You can’t get it, unless your mother says you can have it. In my case, when my mother passed away, I eventually got them.

“It was very hard to get my documents. I think it’s similar in Ireland, it’s very hard to get them. At first, they were lost. Then they were missing. They were. I couldn’t get my hands on it. It was very, very difficult.”

At various stages throughout her search, Monique was told that certain documents didn’t exist, or were lost or destroyed.

monique-weustink-schmeitz-z (1) Andrea (left) and Monique Source: Monique Weustink Schmeitz

“There are so many stories, what we hear in the Netherlands a lot is that the documents are lost. There were a lot of ‘fires’, I don’t know how all these fires started,” she says, knowingly.

A lot of supposed fires also happened in Ireland over the years, as many adopted people here know all too well.

The home Monique spent time in before her adoption was operated by a Catholic order of nuns but also received government funding – the model under which most Irish institutions also operated.

“I don’t believe these fires happened, I don’t believe that the documents are lost either. There is literally no information, zero information, there is no record of some people’s time in the homes.

“How is this possible? I still, to this day, cannot understand how that is a reality.

“In some cases people are told there was a fire and there are no documents and then, it could be 20 years later, they receive a lot of documents because they persisted in trying to get them.”

Long-awaited legislation in Ireland will enshrine in law a right for adopted people to access their birth certificates, and birth and early life information.

The Bill is expected to pass through the Oireachtas next year, but many adopted people have raised concerns about certain aspects of the legislation.

Setting up the register

Monique is grateful that she eventually found out who her father was and got access to her documents. However, she is frustrated and hurt that she didn’t get to meet him before he died.

The fact that many adopted people only get documents about their early life until after their mother has died has a huge impact on their lives and chance to reconnect with relatives before it’s too late.

In recent years, Monique wrote two books that parents could use as aids to explain to their children that they are adopted. After her own experience, she also wanted to help other adults find out more about their past.

“I myself have always been very curious about who took care of me in the home where I stayed, what I looked like as a baby and what I was like as a child. I think these are common questions for people who spent time in orphanages or homes but who were too young to remember what happened.”

20170901_113619 Monique Source: Monique Weustink Schmeitz

Monique decided to set up a register, in collaboration with Fiom, that would link people who spent time in an institution as a child to the carers and nuns who worked in them.

The register was highlighted in a TV documentary featuring Monique and two other people who spent time in similar institutions as children.

After the programme aired in 2018 there was a huge surge in people registering – mainly children, but also nurses, nuns and others who worked in the facilities. Any time the documentary has been broadcast since then, there is another spike in registrations.

“By registering in the register, [adopted people] can be put into contact with carers who worked in a home at the same time they were there.”

People enter the name of the institution they spent time in, as well as the dates and other relevant information. If the information matches, people who register are given the opportunity to get in contact with each other.

The register is mindful of privacy issues, Monique notes, explaining that if a match is made both parties receive an email with a code. They can then decide to contact the other person if they wish, who can in turn reply if they want to.

“We soon found out that there are a lot and lots of carers, and also some nuns, who kept private photographs and diaries about the time they worked in a certain home. This is of course very valuable to us, the adopted people.”

As well as matching adopted people with people who used to work in the institutions, the register has also paired people who spent time in the same home at the same time as children.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

Monique noted that because so many adopted people in the Netherlands were told that no record of their time in an institution exists, getting access to photos and information about the homes is invaluable.

I think it’s often the same in Ireland, that people are told there is no record of the time they spent in a home. That it is totally blank, there is nothing. You sometimes don’t even know the dates you were there. You don’t know who took care of you. So the register was in response to that, to try to deal with the situation in a proactive way.

In general, fewer nuns than nurses or other carers have come forward but some have engaged with the process, Monique says.

She notes that many adopted people do not wish to engage with nuns because of the manner in which they were adopted, and this wish is respected.  

“The subject is so sensitive. It’s important not to put blame on any one person. A lot of people are very, very angry at the nuns who worked in the homes.

“Some adoptees just don’t want any contact with a nun ever because of their history, which I can also totally understand.

“I can understand that, but at the same time, I try to look at it in a different way. I think not all of them were bad. I hope most of them tried to work as hard as they could and tried to do the right thing.”

Due to the private nature of the register, Monique is unsure of how many people have registered in total to date but she believes it is in the thousands. She knows that over 200 people connected to the same orphanage as her have registered, for example, saying this is “quite a lot” for just one home.

Monique knows that such a register may not work in Ireland given the reluctance of many religious orders in particular to engage with adopted people, but she wanted to share the idea in case it helps someone or sparks an idea that might help reconnect people in Ireland.  

Monique says she and other adopted people have received new photographs and information about their early life through the register.

“It’s so valuable for people, especially those who have struggled to get information or perhaps to reconnect with a parent. To get to talk to someone who was present when you were a baby, to develop a relationship or a bond with them, or to receive photographs, things like that are so important to people.

“I follow what is happening in Ireland and I’ve read articles about the struggle that Irish people go through. In many ways, their experience is so similar to what Dutch people experience.

“That’s why I really wanted to share my experience with an Irish audience. I don’t know if a similar register could be set up in Ireland, but maybe it could be.”

2014 Amerika reis Washington Justus links, Cyril rechts.Met gezin reis gemaakt westcoast en Canada, geweldig ook omdat toen Obama er nog was, nu onder Trump zou ik niet willen gaan. Monique pictured with her sons in America in 2014 Source: Monique Weustink Schmeitz

Monique has keenly watched the controversy over the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland unfold in the past year.

“Almost the exact same thing happened. The investigation started but many people thought they were doing a terrible job. There were a lot of privacy errors, there were a lot of mistakes. It was a mess.”

In both the Netherlands and Ireland, there was a lot of controversy over how survivors’ testimony was handled and a concern that more weight was given to the testimony of religious orders rather than individuals.

“It was exactly the same (in the Netherlands) so how can that be? Do they do that on purpose or something? I don’t know,” Monique adds.

The investigation in the Netherlands was scrapped in its current form in recent weeks. A new one is being set up but those who already gave evidence will have to do so again, reliving painful memories in the process.

“Everything has to start over, which is very sad because now everybody has to tell their story again. I know that you struggled with some of the same issues in Ireland.

“Starting over is also tricky because a lot of the mothers are of a certain age, they may pass away in the next few years. So much information is yet to come out and justice has not been done.

“It’s such a struggle and that’s why I focus on the register because it’s positive. For me, focusing on something positive or on a possibility for people to reconnect, even if it’s a small one, helps.”

Amid all the disappointments, Monique finds joy in the success stories when they happen. Last month she read an interview with Maria Arbuckle on The Journal.

In it, Maria spoke about reconnecting with her son 40 years after he was born.

“Many people are still trying to find their parents, or their children. That was such a beautiful story, it gives people hope,” Monique says.

The fact that so much of our lives is online now has helped adopted people from all over the world to connect with each other and share advice.

She believes that adopted people in the Netherlands, Ireland and other countries should “unite” to put more pressure on governments and religious orders to help people get access to their documents.

“We are fighting the same struggle, literally the same struggle. We should unite, we are stronger together.”

More information on the Dutch register can be read here.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

Read next:

COMMENTS (20)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel