Honour thy birth mother?

Who wasn't misty-eyed over the story of Clare 'n' Toby last week? But not all adoption reunions have such happy endings.

Ah ... the turmoil of falling in love, the surge in the heart, the clutching of hands and what else to do with your eyes but gaze and be lost in the orbs of your newly beloved. Last week's reunion of Clare Short with her lost son, Toby Graham, made a picture that moved the nation to tears of joy and sparked a debate on adoption.

It was everyone's dream reunion. There was the mother saying she had regretted every day without her boy; the son saying how complete it made him feel; the adoptive father understanding utterly why and what his son was doing. Even the birth father emerged to reveal his touching and terrible sorrow about the parting 31 years ago.

Then everyone with an axe to grind leaped forward with sharpened arguments: that adoption is second-best to any "natural" mothering; that birth-mother- love is the only true mother-love; there were rows over abortion, with one group shouting, "She'd never have been able to reunite if she'd aborted" and the other crying out, "She'd never have gone through this 30-year misery if she had." Out came leftists saying that birth-mothers needed more support and the rightists responding with "all single mothers are a danger to the nation's well-being". The agony aunts were out in force arbitrating, and dragging along behind were grieving women who had, as they saw it, forsaken their children. Then into view came the unrequited, unhappy adoptees, all, perhaps, looking in vain for a mother like Clare Short.

It is also a fact that reunion is not usually like that of Clare and Toby, all rose-tinted masses and hearts of gold. And who, as an adopted person, would not yearn for a mother like Clare: a modern-day princess (albeit of politics); an intelligent, thoughtful, warm, human sort of woman with a big, loving family (by all reports), or a father like Andrew Moss: sensitive, philosophical, caring? But there are few Clares about. Most reunions are not usually like that of Clare and Toby, all rose-tinted masses and hearts of gold

There are, of course, some adoptees have never bothered or wanted to search for the woman who bore them, particularly those who have known all along that they were adopted and are comfortable in their knowledge. Others, like Jan, now a successful business woman and mother of two, tell of reunions that "had gone, um, okay, but nothing so fantast.ically wonderful that either side had wanted a future of regular meetings. There was nothing much we had in common - I didn't even look like her."

Then there was Ginny, now 30, who discovered she was the product of rape. "I had a very stable, loving upbringing with my parents, who had always been open about adopting me. I know that my birth-mother was very young when she had me and couldn't support me. When I found out I understood even more. I could never condemn her."

Shirley Greenwood, an actress in the TV series London's' Burning discovered at 59 that she had been adopted as a baby. She went in search of information and found out about her birth-mother (now dead). "I'm not sure I would have liked her. She deserted a two-year-old to come to London, had me in secret and gave me away. I was shocked and angry to find out so late in life but now, a year later, I have given it a lot of thought and I can understand why I wasn't told: it was to protect me. In a way I'm glad I didn't know. I nursed my mother at the end of her life and maybe if she'd known that I knew I'd been adopted, she might have thought I was doing it out of duty and gratitude when I was doing it out of love."

But reunion is not solely about the relationship of mother and child. It involves the adopters and the wider families - the wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents. How easy has it been, for instance, for Toby's wife to see her husband falling so deeply in love with his new-found mother? How would you deal with this woman who had, when all's said and done, given up your beloved husband as a small baby, leaving him with a rather large question-mark over his life? Then there are the added complications of Toby's newly-found half-brothers, not much older than his own daughters, and a huge collection of relatives.

And what if, perhaps, the adoptive parent is not quite such a gloriously magnanimous person as Mr Graham senior. As one adoptive mother said to me this week, "It's all very well, this reunion thing. But we're the ones who were there for all those years looking after these children, when no one else wanted to. Now that a blood relative appears are we supposed to just slink off and be forgotten. What about us and the bonds of motherhood we make? Is that all irrelevant?"

And there is another, horrible reality of adoption. What if an adopted child, as is common now, has been badly abused before he or she escaped into adoption? How then would the adoptive parents feel about a reunion? How would the child react?

I am a mother myself, the adopting variety. I, like most of the other adopters I know, follow modern theory and bring up my children with the knowledge of their birth mother, and strive to deal with the idea of her and reunion. My elder son has a picture of his birth-mother at the end of his bed, next to a picture of himself. He tells me, aged five and not having seen her since his birth, that he misses her. He cries and we talk and cuddle and think about what we'll do in the future to help him track her down. I hope I have the courage to fulfil that promise to both my boys if that's what want to do.

Before I start sounding too holier than thou, I do recognise that - at this stage - these are easy enough promises to make. I don't know what I'll feel like then, in that future, when perhaps I meet this extraordinary (for she is to me) woman, who gave life to that boy I can and do call my own (for he is to me). Sometimes when I look at him, I see her, and see her in him: brave, strong and determined. And, meanwhile, I try to remember another son of inheritance, one that my father passed down from his mother, the inheritance of attitudes: "Children are only ever on loan," he said. "You never, ever own them." It's not a bad maxim for any parent, including a newly reunited one.

Liv O'Hanlon is director of The Adoption Forum, dedicated to bringing adoption out of the dark: 0171 582 9932.

Norcap (National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents): 01865 875000.

Natural Parents' Network: 0113 286 8489.

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