January 3, 2010
Adopted – but we didn't know
How does it feel to discover as an adult that you were adopted as a baby? We
talk to four people who came to terms with finding out later in life.
The Guardian, Saturday 2 January 2010
Hilary Moon found out she was adopted 12 years ago. Photograph: David Sillitoe
Hilary Moon, 60, was 48 when she discovered that she was adopted. She is
"I was at my uncle's funeral when my cousin's husband wandered up to me and
said, 'I've been wanting to meet you, because we're both adopted.' It was a huge
shock – how could it not be? On the other hand, I had an instant explanation as
to why I'd always felt like a square peg in a round hole when it came to my
"I once said to my mother, 'I've always felt like I was found on a doorstep.'
She got terribly upset, and I later learned that was the point at which she
confided in my cousin's husband. She chose him because he's a vicar. She assumed
he'd keep it to himself.
"My mother had died by the time I found out the truth, but my father hadn't, so
I asked him about it. He was an unpleasant man and simply said, 'Well, nobody
else would have you.' I threw a cup of tea at him, said that at least it meant I
wasn't related to him and we never spoke again.
"Was I angry? Of course I was. I had been advised not to have children because
my mother and brother had both had severe diabetes and had gone blind and died
early. To learn I wasn't blood-related to them means I made an enormous decision
based on fiction.
"I've mellowed now. My mother had such a bum deal in life – a husband that had
affairs and a son who died young – that it's hard to feel anger towards her. She
and I got on well, and I'm thankful for that. And although I still have negative
feelings towards my father, who is now dead, I think that's probably more to do
with how he treated my mother.
"About eight years ago, my biological sister sought me out. She put me in touch
with my birth mother, to whom I look incredibly similar. I've met others in the
extended family, too, and I even changed my full name to what it was before the
adoption. With all my adoptive family dead, and a large birth family still
alive, it just made sense to me. But, actually, they're a funny lot and I can't
say I feel any great bond with them.
"The whole situation has left me feeling neither part of my adoptive nor my
biological family, and the lack of a sense of belonging in either can make me
feel lonely if I let it. When people ask me who is my next of kin, I say, 'I
haven't got one', because that's how it feels."
Mandy Sullivan, 52, is divorced with three grown-up children. She found out she
was adopted when she was 36.
"I've never had a good relationship with my mum. She had a baby that died at a
week old and from very young I realised I could never replace that baby. But one
day, when I was 36, something else came to light that further explained things –
I wasn't even hers.
"I found out by chance. I became a mature student and the university
administration office requested my birth certificate. I'd never seen it and my
mum kept saying she couldn't find it. In the end, she gave me a piece of paper
that I duly showed the university office. The administrator looked at me and
said, 'This isn't your birth certificate. ' She must have registered that I
didn't understand and explained, 'I'm sorry to tell you this, but it's your
adoption certificate. '
"I felt sick. My whole life had been a lie. It was horrendous and not helped by
the fact that I was right in the middle of a bad divorce and my house was being
repossessed. I didn't do anything about it for three or four years. I thought
about it constantly but I felt I had to prioritise finding a job, moving house
and settling my three daughters.
"Eventually, I wrote my mum a letter. I thought, I can't just ring her up and
blurt it out because she'd get defensive. She got defensive anyway. In a short,
sharp tone, she said my dad didn't want me to know because he was afraid of me
feeling rejected and different. I believe her – my dad and I were very close
until he died when I was 25. But I don't accept that it was all him. It must
have been a joint decision. She said she planned to write it in a letter that
I'd get after she died, but what a cop out.
"Our relationship has continued to go downhill since that letter. The main thing
she seemed concerned about was that her relationship with my daughters didn't
suffer. A few years ago, when she had a massive stroke, I felt we might be
getting a bit closer, but as soon as she was on the mend the old barriers went
up. These days she doesn't want much to do with me.
"About 10 years ago, I decided to apply for my adoption file. It's funny –
despite always feeling different to my adoptive family (I'm tall, they're not.
I'm a bookworm, they don't read books at all), I remember still thinking the
social worker might come in and say it was all a big mistake – that I wasn't
adopted at all. But, of course, she didn't.
"I didn't discover much more than what my mother had divulged, however – that my
adoptive father had been in the pub having a drink with a friend, who said that
his sister-in-law couldn't cope with her baby. Apparently, my dad came home and
asked my mum, 'Why don't we adopt her?'
"I've never looked for my birth mother. I don't think I could cope with another
mum rejecting me. But I'm in quite poor health and increasingly worried that
it's hereditary, so I think I might get in touch just to find out my medical
"Every area of my life has been affected by what I found out. I have great
problems trusting people – both men and friends – and once I do trust someone, I
seem to find it really hard to say goodbye, even if the relationship is really
rubbish. On a positive note, I'm closer than ever to my daughters – they're the
only blood relations I know."
Chris Lines, 63, is married with three grown-up children and one granddaughter.
He found out that he was adopted three years ago.
"My wife and I were in a local garden centre when I spotted the daughter of my
mum's next-door neighbour. She was with a little girl, who she introduced as one
of her three grandchildren. The other two, she explained, were adopted from
Vietnam. She turned to the girl and said, 'This man was adopted too, you know.'
My wife and I looked around to see who she was talking about. She felt awful –
she thought I knew. It turned out she still remembered going in the taxi with
her mum and my mum to pick up a five-month-old baby – me – from the Salvation
Army all those years ago.
"The way I deal with most problems is to deny their existence. I didn't want to
think about it, but my wife prompted me to check the official birth records in
Liverpool and, sure enough, my name wasn't there.
"With both my parents dead, I approached two elderly aunts. They knew all about
the adoption, and even told me my original name – Dennis Kelly. The moment I
heard that name was when it really hit me. My legs gave way. I felt I'd lived
for 61 years as one person, but really I was another.
"It turned out everyone in my adoptive family knew. I'm still amazed nobody told
me because it's a huge and close family. They've all since said they thought I'd
been told. My mother had an ectopic pregnancy and was advised not to get
pregnant again, so she doted on me as her only child. I think they felt that if
I discovered I was adopted, I might look for my real parents and they'd have to
share me or even lose me.
"I did decide to look for my biological parents. It struck me that the only
blood relations I knew were my own children. Even though I used the charity
After Adoption, it was a long search because when we found out that I was born
in a home for "wayward mothers", we assumed my mother had been young. Then we
discovered she'd been 39.
"I was sad to learn that she had died, but I did find a cousin who agreed to
meet me. When he produced a box with four or five photos of my mother, I was
speechless. There she was, smiling and laughing. She really did exist. Another
relative I later found, remembered her as larger than life and always smiling. I
liked hearing that.
"It might sound funny, but a big relief to me was that I had been born in
Liverpool and that I have Irish blood in me – both things I'd been brought up to
believe and am fiercely proud of. What isn't true, however, are all the little
genetic links I'd always taken for granted – my youngest daughter having my
aunt's eyes; my eldest daughter having her grandmother' s legs.
"I think I'd rather not know I'm adopted, but it has helped explain some things
– for example, why I sometimes felt as a child that I wasn't quite the same as
the other children in the family. Also, one of my aunts told me that when my
parents got me I didn't make any noise, presumably because, for the first five
months of my life, nobody had come when I cried. I wonder if that's why I've
always been quite introverted. "
Peter Clark, 61, was 39 when he found out he was adopted. He is married and has
four sons and five grandchildren.
"The thing I remember most about the day I found out that my mother didn't give
birth to me, was this feeling of standing with my back to the edge of a cliff
because everything behind me – everything I'd known to be true – felt as if it
was a lie and I literally didn't know who I was.
"It even made me question the right to have my father's war medals. As the
eldest of five children, I'd been in possession of them. I took them out of the
drawer by my bed that night and felt it was wrong for me to have them, because
he wasn't my real dad.
"I don't think my parents ever intended to tell me. My mother says it's because
I was a sensitive child and they didn't want to upset me. When I asked her why
she still didn't tell me in adulthood, she said she gave my father, who had died
when I was 21, a deathbed promise to keep the secret. I think the real reason
was a fear that I would abandon her in favour of my birth family. Even when my
mother did finally tell me I was adopted, the first thing she asked me was never
to make contact with my birth mother.
"She finally told me just before I went on an overseas business trip. There were
some complications over my visa and passport, which prompted questions around my
birth certificate and the identity of my parents. It must have made my mum
"I was gobsmacked because I'd never had any inkling. It's not as if adoption is
taboo in our family. One of my brothers adopted four children and my wife's
brother adopted three. I felt very angry with her about the web of deception for
a long time and although I've worked through that now, I still hold a strong
belief that people have a fundamental right to know about their origins.
"I realised I needed to know my roots. It wasn't easy – the search for my birth
mother took six years. I had an unconscious fear of rejection, so I'd make some
progress in finding her, then take a step back. She was also hard to find. Even
with the help of an adoption charity, it took a couple of hundred phone calls
and many letters to find her.
"My first meeting with Agnes, when I eventually found her living in the United
States, went wonderfully, and although she never acknowledged who I was to her
friends and family – which I found hard – we continued a warm relationship until
she died in 1996. About two years later, I plucked up the courage to search for
other members of my birth family and I'm now in contact with my cousins, aunts
and uncles too – although, sadly, I was never able to get any information about
"It's good to know where I came from, although I have no regrets about being
adopted and my adoptive family feels no less my family than before. Three of my
siblings say it doesn't make them feel any differently towards me.
"Sadly, one of my brothers – who, I learned last year, was the only one who knew
before me that I was adopted – doesn't feel like this. But we have a difficult
relationship for other reasons. One of my other brothers recently had my
father's watch repaired and said he felt I should have it. Given how I'd felt
about the war medals, it was a significant gesture."