Two years ago, Liz Wilde wrote a heart-wrenching piece in YOU describing her quest to find out more about her late birth mother. A week later she received an email from a stranger in America…
Exactly two years ago, I wrote an article for this magazine about my mother Valerie, who had been forced to give me up for adoption in 1963 ‒ and the heartbreak she had experienced. I never dreamt it could lead to a new connection to her.
By the time I wrote my article, I had resigned myself to never knowing more than the basic facts about this crucial time in my mother’s life. Yet, one week after publication, a lady called Lyn emailed me from America to say she had been very moved by my article – and that she had been in the same mother-and-baby home at the same time as my mother. Valerie was not alone. At least half a million women lost their children in the same way in the UK during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, due to the stigma of being unmarried mothers.
At the age of six, my adoptive mother sat me on her knee and gently explained how my first mother had been unable to keep me. From that moment on, I secretly dreamt of meeting the woman who had given me life. When I was 18 I began the lengthy and frustrating search, and after many delays and setbacks (this was pre-internet), I traced my natural family 11 years later. I was too late. My mother had died tragically young at 52 of heart failure, only four years earlier.
Deprived of my longed-for reunion, I was naturally greedy for anything my mother’s family could tell me about her life. But when it came to the subject of my adoption, I hit a wall of silence. My grandmother who had supported the adoption was understandably reluctant to revisit her decision, and would cry whenever I attempted a question. My uncle Roger ‒ my mother’s younger brother ‒ and his wife Pat never knew what happened to me. ‘We just didn’t ask,’ he told me. ‘I wish I’d been more sympathetic, but we all had a stiff upper lip in those days.’
I approached the Royal Voluntary Service who ran Brent House, the mother-and-baby home in Streatham, South London, where my mother stayed while she waited to give birth to me. The archivist sent me some official information, but all records kept by the home had been destroyed. I placed adverts along with my mother’s photo in several ‘mature’ magazines hoping someone might recognise her, but no one responded. I posted on adoption social media groups and spoke to a mother who had also been forced to give her child away, but I had no idea if her experience matched my mother’s own ordeal.
When Lyn got in touch, my heart leapt. ‘I was at Brent House at the same time as your mother,’ she told me. ‘If you would like to hear about that period of time I have complete recall.’ Still, after so many disappointments, I was wary. Was she simply referring to a similar time in history, or had she actually met my mother? Over the phone two days later, Lyn’s words tumbled out of her at such a speed I could hardly keep pace. It felt like she had been waiting a lifetime to tell her story.
Winning a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) as an innocent 16-year-old from Leeds, Lyn resisted when her first boyfriend Rory* attempted to seduce her. ‘I want to be a virgin when I meet my husband,’ she told him. ‘You have,’ he replied, and she believed him. When her mother discovered Lyn’s pregnancy, she refused to let her keep the baby. ‘I can understand why she was so disappointed,’ Lyn reasoned. ‘We were poor and my career was my mother’s only chance to better herself.’
Lyn entered Brent House aged 17, six weeks before her daughter was born. ‘It was spartan, with a strict regime like a workhouse,’ she recalls. ‘We were there to be punished.’ Girls in the last weeks of their pregnancy mopped floors twice a day, and crept into the depths of the old building at night to stoke the boiler.
‘I remembered you because of your name, Dominique,’ Lyn said suddenly. I froze. ‘I babysat you in the nursery when your mother needed to go out.’ (Liz was the name given to me by my adoptive parents – all adoptive babies are given new names.)
Lyn and I agreed that the chance of us connecting after almost 58 years is nothing short of astounding. Feeling homesick (and needing to practise using her new iPad), Lyn had started reading British newspapers and magazines. She would usually avoid articles about adoption, but seeing my birth name instantly drew her back to that time. ‘You were named after the song we all sang along to on the radio,’ Lyn continued, and she began singing the catchy refrain ‘Domi-nique, nique, nique’. I had always been puzzled why my mother had given me a French name, and now I knew. The song by The Singing Nun had been a huge hit at the time of my birth. I would play it endlessly in the weeks to come.
The origin of my name was just the beginning of what Lyn was able to tell me. Her stay at Brent House not only overlapped my mother’s (although sadly Lyn only remembers me, not Valerie). She had also suffered the same trauma of handing over her daughter to strangers at the National Children Adoption Association (NCAA) in Knightsbridge, London. As we talked over the coming months, it felt like I was hearing my own mother’s account of giving me up, almost as if I was speaking to her myself.
‘Nobody ever said I could keep my child,’ Lyn told me. ‘No one told me I could claim financial support. They just wanted my baby.’ As her daughter Katie’s* adoption date grew nearer (a legal minimum of six weeks from birth), Lyn remembers sobbing constantly. ‘I couldn’t bear to hear Katie cry. It felt like she knew,’ Lyn recalled. The sound of a baby crying fills her with panic to this day. Girls weren’t allowed to take their babies out of the home in case they absconded, or worse: ‘We were demented, the lot of us,’ Lyn told me.
The day of Katie’s adoption is etched on Lyn’s memory. ‘Giving up your baby was like going to your death. The worst fear you can imagine, and such terrible guilt at leaving the person you love the most.’ Faced with travelling to the NCAA by bus, another girl paid for the taxi to Knightsbridge. ‘I had an icy cold feeling when I walked up the steps. I was finally aware that there would be no reprieve. Nobody was going to rush in and say that the baby I loved with a passion, by the man I loved with a passion, was to stay with me and live happily ever after.’
Lyn arrived back at Brent House hysterical. ‘I don’t remember much, other than standing in the foyer screaming and being calmed down.’ Her friend Penny* came to collect her, to take her to stay with her mother for a few days. ‘You had to leave the same day,’ Lyn remembers. ‘They didn’t want you upsetting the other girls.’
Growing up, I knew nothing of the cruel adoption practices of that time, and would privately question how my own mother could give me up. At 40 I eventually gained full access to my adoption records and read a letter from my mother detailing her ‘torment’ at being parted from me. Here at last was the story behind that torment. The truth no one had wanted – or been able – to tell me.
Lyn returned home and continued to cry every day. She asked her mother for permission to marry Rory – you couldn’t marry without your parents’ consent in those days until you were 21 – and reclaim Katie, but her mother replied, ‘I’d rather stick my head in the oven.’ Around this time, Lyn received a photo of Katie in a high chair. ‘Every mother was sent a picture of their baby at three months before they signed the final paperwork,’ she told me. The photo on the opposite page is the only one I have of me as a three-month-old child, and surely the one Valerie received. The thought of her staring at it breaks my heart. ‘My mother ripped mine up,’ Lyn added.
Graduating from Rada, Lyn went on tour with Rory and conceived their second daughter Melanie, who was born in 1965. ‘I was able to keep her because I was working and could pay my own way,’ Lyn remembers. She and Rory married briefly but he was only 21 and already sleeping with someone else. One day he left the flat they shared and phoned Lyn’s mother. ‘I can’t do this,’ he told her. ‘You need to come and get her.’
So what do I know about the story of my birth parents? Valerie had been living in Benidorm when she met my father, Mariano, who was married but separated. Although he had no hope of securing a divorce in 1960s Spain, they were still together when she travelled back to London to hide her pregnancy. Just after my birth, he wrote to her: ‘I have little to say as you do not write.’ No one has been able to tell me why my mother never spoke to him again, and instead pleaded for her parents’ permission to keep me. I asked Lyn. ‘It all came down to money in those days,’ she explained. ‘Your grandparents obviously couldn’t foot the bill. Your mother suffered so much, there must have been a very good reason she didn’t want to be with your father.’
After my adoption, my adoptive family told me my mother had suffered a breakdown and was prescribed Valium. An unhappy marriage followed, ending in a restraining order, granted after neighbours called the police. ‘She was never the same after she gave you up,’ my grandmother told me on a rare night of candour, tears streaming down her face.
In 1990, Lyn was found by Katie, who was then 26 years old. They had a fractious relationship, culminating in a bitter verbal attack by Katie three years later. ‘I can understand her feelings of hatred and loss,’ Lyn reflected. ‘I married her father and had Melanie less than a year after giving her up.’
They are no longer in contact. Lyn welcomed my lack of bitterness. ‘I was moved by your understanding and love for your mother,’ she told me. ‘I think about Katie every day and have never stopped loving her or feeling guilty that she couldn’t be with me and her sister.’
Before speaking to me, Lyn had never discussed what happened to her in detail with anyone. ‘I was made to feel so much shame for bringing a child into the world outside the proper order,’ Lyn observed. We both found our conversations very cathartic. After my mother’s initial disclosure, my adoption was never mentioned, and I grew up believing it was my shameful secret. We had both stayed silent for too long.
Our experience of adoption has also left a shared legacy. We have both worked hard to make ourselves emotionally strong, keeping any vulnerability well hidden. Underneath, our sense of loss has stayed with us a lifetime.
Melanie moved to Austin, Texas for work in 1992, and Lyn followed the next year. She is keen to come back home once Covid is over. ‘I want to meet the tiny baby I remember as Dominique,’ she told me. I very much look forward to meeting my first babysitter, too. ‘If there is an afterlife, I hope your mother sees us and is happy,’ Lyn told me. ‘She would be so proud of her little baby.’
Liz shares more of her adoption experience at lizwilde.co.uk. Do you have a similar story to tell? We’d love to hear from you. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Some names have been changed.