Joanna is one of some 750,000 adopted children in Britain. She, like many, felt a growing curiosity about her genetic history and the story of her life. But it was not until she married and had children of her own that the compulsion became pressing. 'A bit of it was hubris,' she says with a self-mocking smile - 'the idea that I might have been stolen by gypsies and had a startlingly romantic beginning.'
The reality proved otherwise. 'My mother is completely unremarkable,' Joanna says, 'and 99 per cent of people who track down their real parents must find this.' Though her mother's story was moving, and made sense of questions she'd had in her head since adolescence, it all seemed very remote. Joanna did not feel a bond with her mother.
'She was like a stranger telling me a story. Although I felt gratitude to her for meeting, there was no other emotion. We met another couple of times, but the strongest feeling I had throughout was fear that my Mum - my adoptive mother - would find out and be terribly hurt. I didn't want to risk that.'
Organisations which help adopted children and natural parents meet say reconciliations can go either way. 'In some cases the child and natural parent do not get on at all,' says Alan Bernall of the Post-Adoption Centre in London. 'In others an intense relationship may develop. Whatever happens, it is rarely exactly what the person has had as their dream.'
If the government's new White Paper on adoption becomes law, more people will have the opportunity to find this out. It suggests that adopted children and their natural parents should have more extensive rights. Jane Mandlessohn, 47, would welcome this. She wonders constantly whether her mother would try to find her if the law were changed. 'For as long as I can remember,' she says, 'I have wanted to find my mother. I have never got over the feeling of being rejected and of wondering how she could have done it. I had a son in difficult circumstances, but I could never have imagined giving him up.'
During her searches, Jane tracked down a woman who had run the house where her mother had given birth. 'She wrote me a very sad letter, saying that of all the mothers there, mine was the only one who refused to touch her baby or have anything to do with it after the birth. That is a terrible thing to live with. I feel that, if I could only meet her and understand what state she was in at the time, it would help me to repair the pain.' The day after English law changed in 1975, allowing children over 18 to see their original birth certificates, Jane applied for hers and got it. But it took her no further. She went through the public records, knowing her mother's name, but found nothing. Then she made contact with a woman who had retired from social services and did research for adopted children. 'She got hold of my original adoption file,' Jane recalls, 'and from this I learnt that she came from a highly respectable middle-class family which would, presumably, have been mortified to hear about me. I became exhilarated, excited, planning how our meeting would take place. But it simply hasn't been possible to get a lead to her. I have had to shut down my hopes and accept the bitter disappointment. And yet I feel sure my mother wants to find me; I wish so very much that it would happen.'
Nobody can know, of course, how many adopted children wish to trace families. Although only 15 per cent actually seek their birth records, the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and their Parents (Norcap) - which receives some 6,000 enquiries a year - believes there is a widespread and understandable desire to fill in the gaps in a life story. The organisation was set up in 1982 by a group of five women - three adopted, one a birth mother whose daughter found her - to act as a support group for adult adoptees and guide them in their search for their birth parents. They also act as intermediaries between child and natural mother when she is traced, making the first contacts and ascertaining whether the mother wants to meet.
'We strongly advise against people making an unsupported approach to their birth parents,' says Linda Savell, one of Norcap's directors. 'You can't turn up on someone's doorstep after perhaps 30 years and say: 'Hi Mum]' If someone has had a good experience with their adoptive parents, and perhaps has a happy family of their own, there may not be so much invested in the possibility of a relationship with the natural parent. But there is very often a good deal of emotion and expectation. We counsel people throughout the process, so that they can be prepared and can cope with the way things work out.'
Tales such as the one actress Pauline Collins told in her book Letter to Louise, about having a daughter adopted 28 years ago and then finding her, feed into the romantic mythology of great reconciliations and happy endings. But aren't the majority of such contacts disruptive and painful, rather than constructive?
Dr Alexina McWhinnie, senior research fellow in the Department of Social Work at the University of Dundee, is a researcher in the field. She is particularly opposed to open adoption, where natural parents are kept in touch with their children afterwards. She believes the risk of disturbance to adoptive families, which most adopted children regard as their real ones, is great. Counselling to help natural mothers get over the grief of having a child adopted, she adds, might be a better way.
The usual procedure when tracing a parent is for the child to get the original birth certificate from the Registrar General. Then they should approach an adoption agency, or their local authority, for records. The public records at St Catherine's House in London may show whether the mother has since got married or moved house. The government also has a contact register on which both child and mother can express their wish to make contact.
While some people go through this process on their own, others approach an organisation for help. 'They often want guidance on whether it is a wise thing to do,' says Alan Bernall of the Post-Adoption Centre, 'and they feel the need of counselling through the process. Sometimes upsetting things do emerge during the search, such as the child being born out of rape or the mother being a prostitute. But our view is that fact is nearly always better than fiction, and that we can help the person come to terms with their findings.'
Like the Post-Adoption Centre, Norcap will write a letter on behalf of people who believe they have traced a parent. The agency will explain the situation and ask the mother if she wants to meet. About 20 per cent of birth families say they do not want contact, Linda Savell of Norcap says. Even though the other 80 per cent agree to contact, it does not guarantee happy-ever-after tales.
The child may experience unexpected feelings of rage at what happened, and birth mothers reunited with their children may find the pain of separation rekindled. The Post-Adoption Centre estimates that about 50 per cent of adopted children, excluding those adopted by step-parents, wish to trace natural parents. Women outnumber men in this by a ratio of two to one. The desire to find natural parents usually has more to do with piecing together the missing section of their history than dissatisfaction with their lives. But it may not be easy for the adoptive family to understand this.
Clearly there is a fear that natural blood will be thicker than the years of love and care the adoptive parents have put in. Yet the importance of letting children know they are adopted is stressed over and over by professionals in the field. According to Alan Bernall, adoptive families are often strengthened when the child traces a natural parent and sees him or her in reality, rather than a romanticised vision.
This was certainly true of Ron Murdock, who was born in Canada and adopted there, although he is now based in Britain. He is half- Lebanese, and grew up knowing his mother's name. He knew that, after he was born in 1941, he had been put into a home from where babies were sold to wealthy families. Because he was mixed-race, he was not eligible and instead went to his 'mother' who visited the home and was drawn to the unwanted child.
As a young adult, he became curious about his origins. 'I managed to find the village where my mother lived,' he says. 'I asked around and talked to other members of her family, but when I phoned her number her sister hung up. That convinced me I had the right place.'
Ron then telephoned his mother, spoke to her and went to see her. 'I just started talking,' he recalls, 'telling her about myself - that I had a handicapped child and was divorced. She showed such interest and sympathy, but she would not acknowledge that I was her child. It was dreadful. I was rejected a second time and I went into a breakdown and couldn't work for three months. I just cried.'
Yet something good came out of Ron's negative experience - a stronger relationship with his adoptive mother. 'Out of that sadness came something very special. I was able to say to the person I call mother that I love her. I had to wait until she was 86 to say that.'
But there are cases where contact between natural parent and child is special and enduring, and can be integrated into the lives both have built up over the years. This was true of Catherine, who had become pregnant at the age of 18, had her daughter adopted and tried to forget it all. 'For a time that worked,' she says, 'but I began to think about her more and put my name on the contact register. To my amazement I heard from them that she had done the same. I felt a wonderful elation when I heard that - and curiosity. We corresponded, and spoke on the phone. Then I went into a restaurant, and she came in cool as anything and said 'Hi' - and started chatting. Somehow I imagined it being a huge, traumatic and heart-wrenching event, but it was just like meeting any bouncy teenager.
'I felt it was very important to give her her history and explain why she had to be adopted. I had imagined a lot of recrimination but she really didn't act as though she had felt rejected. I suppose that had a lot to do with the fact her adopted parents had given her a wonderful, very happy upbringing. I suspect it was more important for me than for her to get the truth out. I felt as though a weight had fallen from my shoulders.
'I see her fairly regularly and our relationship is very much like friends or sisters. Her father came to meet me and seemed fine about the new development in the family, but I know her mother was upset when she heard we had met and doesn't want to see me. I can understand that but I wish she could understand I am absolutely no threat to her. I don't want my daughter to live with me. I am not her home. I just feel so pleased and so I think does she, that life makes sense at last.'
HOW TO FIND OUT MORE
Post-Adoption Centre, 8 Torriano Mews, Torriano Avenue, London NW5 2RZ (tel: 071- 284 0555). Offers counselling, family and group work for any participants in adoption.
National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and their Parents (Norcap), 3 New
High Street, Headington, Oxford OX3 7AJ
(tel: 0865 750 554). Counselling for adopted adults seeking their origins, their adoptive parents and for birth parents hoping to be found. Contact leaders around the country with similar experiences offer support.
Useful reading: Half A Million Women (Penguin pounds 5.99), E. Howe et al. Accounts by women who have relinquished children, explaining the Post-Adoption Centre's work with them. Letter to Louise (Bantam Press hardback pounds 14.99, Corgi pounds 4.99) by Pauline Collins.