Forced to give her up for adoption, Liz Wilde’s mother Valerie was told it would spell the end of her troubles as a ‘fallen woman’. But decades later, Liz discovered it was just the beginning of a lifetime of heartbreak.
My birth mother Valerie was never meant to see me cradled in my adoptive mother’s arms. This was very much against protocol. As agreed, at 2pm on Wednesday 26 February 1964, she had brought me to the London offices of the National Children Adoption Association to meet my new parents. I was dressed immaculately in one of the many outfits she had knitted for me. ‘We could tell that you were loved,’ a friend of my adoptive mother told me many years later.
The offices of the NCAA were minutes up the road from Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge and must have felt very grand to a young woman who had lived most of her life in Grimsby. A staff member well-practised in this delicate exchange ushered my mother into a side room and deftly lifted me from her arms. ‘We’re just going to show your baby to the parents in the room next door,’ she said. Through the wall my mother heard a squeal of delight. The adoption worker reappeared minutes later, no longer carrying me. ‘You can go when you’re ready,’ she told my mother, and left her alone.
At that moment, my mother’s compliance cracked. As my adoptive mother held me in her own arms for the first time, Valerie burst into the room and attempted to reclaim me. My adoptive father remembered her being wrestled back through the door by embarrassed staff. My birth mother and I would never see each other again.
That afternoon, I travelled by train with my new parents, Kathleen and Philip, to meet my two-year-old brother Stephen – also adopted – and begin life again in suburban Surrey. The local doctor generously offered to test me for syphilis free of charge (my mother was a fallen woman after all). The doctor was less resourceful when it came to diagnosing my ongoing poor health. I vomited so often in the first year of my life that I slept in the kitchen, my cot surrounded by easy-to-mop vinyl flooring. The doctor got angry when I refused to gain weight. My mother got angry with him. But no one seemed to consider that I might be missing the woman who had nursed me for the first six weeks of my life.
Forty years later, when I finally gained full access to my adoption file, I found a note from my birth mother to my new parents detailing the exact times and measurements of my daily feeds. ‘Dominique loves to be wrapped tightly like a papoose at night in a cot sheet,’ she wrote, optimistically using the name she had given me which would immediately disappear into my file along with her note. My new parents never knew the routine that may have soothed my distress. Valerie had hoped to minimise her daughter’s disruption, but staff at the NCAA thought they knew best when they put my past – and my birth mother’s love – firmly behind me.
We had arrived at the NCAA offices by taxi that day from Brent House, a mother-and baby hostel in Streatham, South London. Expectant mothers with nowhere else to go stayed until all arrangements for their babies’ adoption had been completed, a legal minimum of six weeks known as ‘grieving time’. House rules were strict. Beds must be stripped by 7.30am and expectant mothers back in bed by 8.30pm. Many of the women cried themselves to sleep at night. Each resident was required to pay £5 weekly for the privilege of being kept away from judgmental eyes. Unmarried motherhood carried a strong stigma in the 1960s, but a married woman’s illegitimate pregnancy was considered even less excusable. Unfortunately, this was my mother’s fate – aged 28 and abandoned by her husband, she had fallen in love and become pregnant by a married man.
Moral welfare officers of the time told women like my mother that their babies would have a better life without them. ‘If you love your daughter you will give her to a proper family,’ my mother was told. ‘Keeping her is selfish, immature and inconsiderate to her needs.’ There was never any discussion about my mother’s own needs or her fragile mental and emotional state. Nor was there any mention of the financial and housing support available that would have allowed her to keep me. She was simply expected to continue with her life as if nothing had happened; to forget her ‘mistake’ and never speak of me again.
But giving up her baby was not the conclusion of my mother’s troubles as she had been promised, only the beginning. The conspiracy of silence forced on her significantly added to her grief and loneliness. The decision to give me up changed her for ever.
Valerie had once been so full of promise. My uncle – her younger brother Roger – remembers a bright, shy girl with a fantastic sense of humour. She was a talented artist and won a scholarship to study at St Martin’s School of Art in London, but when she heard that her handsome boyfriend Robert was playing around, she was heartbroken and raced home to Grimsby to keep an eye on him. Men would continue to be a disappointment.
After this relationship ended she began seeing James, another good-looking local boy. He was far too young to settle down, but when Valerie became pregnant at 22 they were forced by the convention of the day to get married. She enjoyed being a housewife and mother to their daughter, Mary, but James also had a roving eye, and when Mary was three years old he left Valerie for another woman.
It was 1961, and my mother’s parents, Peggie and Fred, had moved to Benidorm, then a small Spanish fishing village that was rapidly turning into a thriving package tour resort thanks to the town’s mayor authorising the wearing of bikinis. They rented a bar and my mother and Mary joined them. There she met my father Mariano, a good-looking man who kept his glass eye almost permanently hidden behind dark sunglasses. Well-dressed and popular around town, he supplied iron girders for the many high-rise hotels being built along the coast and was on his way to becoming a wealthy man. He had left his wife in Zaragoza, northern Spain, and was now staying with his mother in Benidorm.
A few months into their relationship, Mariano rented Valerie and Mary an apartment of their own. When she became pregnant a little over a year later, he moved them to Alicante, away from local gossip. Fearing a scandal, Valerie decided to come back to England to give birth, and her mother Peggie arranged for her to stay with a friend who managed an old people’s home until it was time to enter Brent House. Four-year-old Mary remained with her grandparents in Spain, unaware of the true reason for her mother’s disappearance.
There was never any suggestion that my birth father could obtain a divorce in 1960s Catholic Spain, and while Valerie was in England she made the decision to end their relationship. I will never know why. My father sent her a letter soon after I was born: ‘I have little to say as you do not write. There is nothing I can tell you except I remember you very much.’ She never saw or spoke to him again. Instead, she wrote to her parents pleading for their help and support so that she could keep her baby, but money was tight and they told her they could not afford to bring up another child. ‘How I regret that letter,’
my grandmother told me near the end of her life.
Valerie returned to Spain without me but, blaming her parents for her heartrending decision, she was soon back in England with Mary, living as an old lady’s companion in Cleethorpes. ‘The lady was a horrendous woman,’ my uncle Roger remembers. ‘It was as though Valerie was doing penance.’ My adoption file during this time contains increasingly desperate letters from the NCAAAA requesting that my mother sign the form of consent to legal adoption so that my adoption order could be granted. ‘Your daughter is indeed a lucky child to have found her way to this charming young couple,’ she was told.
Valerie evaded the letters, later admitting: ‘For six months I’ve tried to think of a way to get my baby back, but I’ve known all along it’s impossible. I can’t even keep my other daughter properly.’ In one last act of defiance, she returned the form incorrectly signed. A fresh one was immediately dispatched. My adoption order was finally granted on 8 October 1964 – more than seven months after my new parents had first taken me home.
Five years later, in 1969, Valerie suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Scartho Road Hospital, Grimsby. It is likely that this is where she first encountered Valium, which she would take for the rest of her life. It is also where she met her second husband, Mark, who was a fellow patient. The troubled couple married a year later, and on their wedding night he hit her for the first time. Their daughter Laura was born in 1971 and a son, John, followed in 1975, but the violence escalated and, after concerned neighbours called the police one night, Valerie was granted a restraining order
On her own with small children, relations continued to be strained with my mother’s family and visits were tense and infrequent. ‘Valium ruined her,’ her brother Roger told me. ‘It completely changed her personality. She didn’t have a good life and was very bitter.’ The child she gave up was only ever mentioned once. ‘There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of her,’ she told Roger. ‘I cry for Dominique every day of my life.’
Valium dependency also took a physical toll, and her health declined. She was overweight, suffered with diabetes and rarely went out, with my half-sister Laura taking over the responsibility of shopping for food. In and out of hospital during the last six months of her life, my mother suffered a seizure at home and died at the age of 52.
I, of course, knew nothing of her agony until years later. I had a happy life with my adoptive parents (who have now both died), but always felt that something was missing and yearned to see my birth mother again. After 11 years of searching, at the age of 29 I finally traced my natural family, just four years after my mother’s death. Reunions are always complicated and mine was no exception. The first time I met my grandmother Peggie, she cried for 20 minutes while I sat uncomfortably in front of her. Not surprisingly, she remained reluctant to speak of my adoption for the rest of her life, although she once told me that my mother had never been the same after she gave me up. Peggie meant well, but for years I felt immense guilt for being the cause of my mother’s tragic life.
My wonderful uncle Roger and his wife Pat have done their best to fill in the gaps of my mother’s story, and have also made me feel very much a part of the family. The first time I met my half-brother John, he arrived with a framed photograph of our mother to give me, a gesture so generous it still takes my breath away, especially as he had learnt of my existence only a few days earlier. I am very pleased to say we continue to have a good relationship.
Through all this, I have developed a fierce independence, especially financially. No one is ever going to have control over my destiny. But the greatest legacy of my mother’s story is sorrow. She sacrificed her happiness to give me the chance of security and social status, which in those days was considered more worthy than mere maternal love. My one regret in life is that I was never able to thank her.
Shame, stigma and lifelong guilt
Liz outlines the UK’s past adoption practices and what is being done to address their legacy.
- In the UK during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, at least half a million women lost their children to adoption due to prevailing social attitudes towards unmarried mothers.
- Women such as my mother were shamed and told that they had no choice; they weren’t informed about financial and other support available to them. They were encouraged to consent to their babies being given away without knowing that there was an alternative. Everyone said they would get over it, but for most it adversely affected the rest of their lives.
- The Movement for an Adoption Apology is seeking a cross-party Parliamentary apology for past adoption practices, as has happened in Australia and Ireland. For more information, visit movementforanadoptionapology.org.
Liz shares more of her adoption experience at lizwilde.co.uk