Why me? A story of forced adoption in Australia

It’s a period of Australian history shrouded in shame and secrecy. But what actually happened to the children who had been taken away from their young, unmarried mothers?

Linda and I sit down at a small café in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. It’s a cold and rainy Wednesday afternoon in the middle of school holidays. Surprisingly, we’re the only ones in the usually bustling café but this small pocket of privacy is welcome. We order some coffees and begin to chat. Is start off by asking her why she was so willing to speak to me.

‘I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this,’ Linda replies. ‘It’s time for me to say it.’

We begin with her childhood. Linda’s upbringing was like any other Australian’s. She grew up as an only child in a loving home with doting parents and, as she says, “all the materialistic things I needed”.

At the age of eight, Linda found out something that set her apart: she had been adopted. Her adoptive family, the Mammana’s, had been hinting at it for years, trying to coerce her into asking the question they wanted to answer. And one day she did.

‘I used to go sit on their bed when I was a little girl,’ Linda says as she fiddles with her hands. ‘They’d ask me, what would you do if you found out you were adopted? If you weren’t ours?’

‘One day I just said, I’m adopted aren’t I?’ Linda tells me. ‘They were finally given the freedom to say, yes you are.’

Linda’s adoptive parents were quick to assure just because she was adopted, it didn’t mean she was their child any less.

‘But we need you not to tell anyone about this,’ Linda’s parents insisted to her. ‘We don’t talk about it with anyone; you’re ours.’

Linda tells me this necessity to keep it to herself created a sense of uncertainty and confusion about her identity.

‘It was only through having to keep it a secret that I then began to realise it was shameful,’ Linda says while fiddling with the scarf around her neck, pulling it back and forth over her chin. She looks down at her hands.

Sex was perceived to be shameful during the mid-20th century. Women weren’t meant to enjoy or have discussions about it. For those who did and fell pregnant out of wedlock, they were deemed to be ‘easy’ and ‘dishonourable’. Women who were unable to have children themselves were deemed to be a ‘bad’ wife or even a ‘bad’ woman. And the children conceived through unplanned pregnancy? They were deemed to be a ‘bastard child’.

This wasn’t just a societal belief; legislation reflected these ideas as well. From the 1950s to the 1970s and beyond, Australian authorities and its laws viewed women who had conceived children out of wedlock as ‘unfit’ to mother.

Linda’s birth mother was one of these women. She was a single, 18-year-old Italian girl who had recently arrived in Australia. When she fell pregnant, she was told the only options she had were either to have an abortion or to go to a religious unwed mother’s home.

Linda’s birth mother refused the abortion and instead saw out the final trimester of her pregnancy at a home in South Yarra. While Linda’s birth mother had the choice as to whether or not she carried the child, once born, she had no further say. She had to give little Linda up for adoption.

‘She wasn’t questioned and the papers just had to be signed,’ Linda tells me. ‘She was only able to see me for a brief time before she had to give me up. My mother then had to return to her family as if nothing happened.’

This situation wasn’t unique. In 2012, the Australian Senate led an inquiry into Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices. It revealed how uniform and widespread this story is.

The inquiry estimated 40,000 babies had been given up for adoption from their unmarried mothers between 1965 and 1972. Social workers, and occasionally doctors and nurses, took consents and arranged adoptions “routinely and as a matter of course”. Many women had “given consent” while still sedated, without having their rights explained to them or even when they were under the age of consent.

It was the belief that a “clean break” was the best way to deal with pregnancies out of wedlock. It was based on Freudian developmental theory, which affirmed “the importance of early and uninterrupted bonding between an adopting mother and the baby”.

Children of unmarried mothers were “removed at birth” and were sometimes even kept on a separate floor until the adoptive parents arrived. The birth mother was often given no information about her baby’s health or even told what gender it was. The original birth certificate was also sealed and a new one was issued in a name given by the adoptive parents.

The idea was to allow all parties to “forget about the past” and start afresh. But your heritage is not something you simply forget.

When Linda found out she was adopted at eight-years old, she says she “didn’t make sense of it all”. This extended into her adolescence and early-twenties where she constantly felt the need to “conform” and keep this part of her life a secret because it was “shameful”.

It was only when Linda got married and was thinking of starting a family that she was able to really think about her identity. It was around this time the opportunity to see her birth mother arose.

‘I was 26 and looking at having children of my own,’ Linda tells me. ‘I started trying and nothing was happening. So I thought if I couldn’t have a family I’ll just adopt. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

During the 1980s, advocacy groups for natural mothers were established around the country. One of these organisations, ARMS Victoria, set up the Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self Help (VANISH) in 1989. This enabled the children who had been adopted to reconnect with their birth mothers.

While enquiring about adopting herself, the adoption agency was able to provide Linda with information about her natural parents. On Linda’s request, the agency sent a letter to her birth mother explaining who Linda was and her intention to meet.

‘The agency rang me up and said she was happy to see me,’ Linda says.

At the time that she was reconnecting with her birth mother, Linda fell pregnant to her firstborn son. She tells me that meeting her mother so soon after falling pregnant was a “very special time”.

‘We were kind of in sync; we first spoke on the phone and then we met up,” Linda tells me with a large smile on her face. “That meeting was incredibly special.’

But this story is real life and so everything doesn’t always go to script. Sometimes uncovering the past can only provide heartache rather than happiness.

‘It’s hard to explain the shame that came when we met. It was just flooding in,’ Linda says, fiddling with her hands. ‘My shame was that I needed to keep this a secret from my adoptive parents and I had no understanding of how to do this.’

‘For her, she had to keep it a secret from her husband and her children.’

Linda visited her birth mother a few times but when there were other people around, it had to be under the pretence she was only a “family friend”. She tells me while it had been “ok for a while”, the lie became too much for her.

‘After all, my mother cut off that memory of me when she gave me up,’ Linda says looking down. ‘So every time she would see me, I felt like I was forcing myself onto her because she found it very painful.’

One day, Linda decided to tell her half-sister they were actually related. While her sister accepted her, the relationship with her birth mother became rockier.

‘The benefit was that I knew my mother didn’t have to carry this secret on her own anymore,’ Linda says with a wry smile on her face. ‘But I got in a lot of trouble and my birth mother started to reject me a lot more. She felt that I was ruining her family.’

Linda tells me this period, during her forties, was a really “tumultuous” time for her. She was “feeling disconnection and grief” after not gaining the acknowledgment she desired from her birth family. But she sought help from spiritual directors to “make sense” of her identity and used her Masters studies and other work to help find grounding in life.

‘I had some down times but I’m at peace with it now,’ Linda says with a small smile on her face. ‘I was angry that they wouldn’t accept me in their family. But then I realised their disconnection from me had a lot to do with the bigger picture. It’s something that I could never fix.’

Linda’s loving relationship with her adoptive parents never diminished despite the search for her past. She says her parents were “a bit sad” when they found out she was in contact with her birth mother, but ultimately they understood her reasons. Linda speaks warmly about her adoptive parents as well as her birth mother.

‘I had a great relationship with my adoptive father. We were very close with similar minds,’ Linda tells me. ‘And I have two mothers that made me; one biologically and one environmentally. I love them both for what they are.’

Linda now has three children of her own and works as a secondary school teacher in Melbourne. While she has remained in contact with her birth mother, they don’t meet up often because it’s “too painful” for the both of them. Instead, Linda focuses all of her energy into her family and her work teaching the next generation of young women about faith, gender and sexuality.

As we’re about to leave the quiet café, I ask if she wants to be named in the piece.

‘I want you to name me! Name me, and shame me.’ Linda says laughing.

I take out my pen and write it down as she spells it out for me. Linda Carla Cipriani Mammana Di Sipio; Carla Cipriani from her birth mother, Linda Carla Mammana from her adoptive parents and Di Sipio from her marriage.

‘I didn’t realise it then, but I used to sign all my names so I could claim them as part of me,’ Linda says with an earnest smile on her face as she gets up from the table. ‘My name has become very important to me and my identity.’

‘So it’s time for me to say it. I’m not ashamed anymore.’

 

(First published in Places Magazine on the 15th November 2015; Photography by H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

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