Every year thousands of babies and children are put up for adoption, and many later try to trace their real parents. Some succeed and the resulting reunions are welcomed by all concerned. But on occasions things don't work out so well: women who gave birth when very young may have built new lives for themselves; the children they gave away may have been brought up in a different social world, and the parents who adopted them are often left feeling rejected by children they consider to be their own.
"Tracing your birth parents is a momentous and emotional task, and it is almost impossible to understand what's involved before you start," says Linda Savell of the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and their Parents (Norcap). "Of those who make searches through us, we estimate that about 80 per cent actually get in touch with their relatives," says Linda Savell. "But we often don't hear whether that new relationship lasts."
Sarah Trotman is 26 and works as a nanny near Wantage. She traced her birth mother when she was 18, but they didn't keep in touch.
I was adopted at six weeks old, and although I had a very loving upbringing I'd always thought about tracing my real parents. I used to wonder if they were famous or rich and what they looked like. The worst thing was not knowing what had happened to them. When the Herald of Free Enterprise sank, I realised that either of my parents could have been on it, but I'd never know.
When I was 18, Mum and Dad gave me all the documents they'd had about me from the National Adoption Society. One named my real mother. At first I didn't tell anyone what I was doing, in case it all went wrong. Three months before my 19th birthday I had a counselling session with social services, then I went to St Catherine's House in London. I applied for a copy of my mother's birth certificate, which gave the address where she'd been living when I was born.
By phoning directory inquiries I discovered that her parents were still at the same house. I called pretending to be an old friend and was given her address. Then I wrote to her, giving details of where and when I'd been born, and asking if she could send me any information about myself. I realised she would have her own life, so kept my letter fairly neutral in case she hadn't told anyone about me. Three days later I got a letter back. She said she couldn't tell me anything at the moment, but if I wanted to write to her again to do it via a friend. I was so excited. After that we wrote every few months for a year or so. But she never told me about myself, or answered questions about my father - she just said she couldn't remember.
Eventually, I managed to arrange a meeting. I kept thinking about what it would be like. You see reunions on TV and everyone bursts into tears. I knew it probably wouldn't be like that, but I still hoped she'd like me.
We met in July 1991. I was nervous, but when I saw her I suddenly felt very calm. She came up and we had a hug, but neither of us were emotional and I couldn't recognise myself in her. She wouldn't tell me anything about her life, even though I kept asking.
I never saw my mother again after that meeting. I wrote to her, but when I said I wanted to find my real father, she got very angry. Her letters became increasingly paranoid. In the last one, she ranted on for four pages about how worried she was that I'd turn up on her doorstep unannounced and cause problems. It really hurt that she didn't trust me, so I decided I wouldn't contact her again, and in a way it was a relief to make that decision.
I was very upset by the way she rejected me. What hurts most is that she has three children who are my half-brothers and sisters, but I will never meet them. People have very high expectations when they embark on something like this, but it isn't surprising that it doesn't always end happily. This person created me, but had nothing else to do with me, so I was effectively meeting a stranger. I used to convince myself that my real mother would want to know me and be proud of me. It was a real shock when that didn't happen.
It was the second time I'd been rejected by my mother, and I began to think, if my own mother doesn't want me, how will anyone else? It took me a long time to come to terms with the experience and realise I wasn't a bad, worthless person.
Fiona Downey is 36 and married with a young son and a new baby. Her adoptive mother has refused to have anything to do with her since she decided to trace her birth parents.
I was nine when I found I was adopted, but my parents discussed it briefly and then it became taboo. The subject of adoption affected my [adoptive] mother deeply because she was the one who couldn't have children, and had always longed for them. I could understand why she didn't want to talk about it, but it was hard because I wanted to find out about myself.
After my adoptive father died, seven years ago, I decided to look for my real parents. A few years earlier he had given me my adoption papers and said he would support me in any way he could. But he warned me not to stir up a hornets' nest and neither of us told my mother. She is a powerful, forthright woman and if she didn't approve of something in our family it didn't happen.
I applied for a copy of my birth certificate and through that discovered my mother's name and where I was born. Then I heard about Norcap and wrote asking to be put on their register.
I got in touch with my real mother, Gill, just weeks later, because by pure coincidence she had written to Norcap at about the same time. She and my real father had got married after I was put up for adoption, so it was wonderful to meet them both.
I knew my adopted mother would be hurt that I'd found my real parents, but I wanted to be honest with her. Inside I was churning. I loved, admired and respected her. But I knew she wouldn't want to hear what I had to tell her, and in the end I took the coward's way out and wrote her a letter.
Two days later she wrote back saying that was the end of our relationship. She never wanted to hear from me again and was cutting me out of her will. The letter was full of hate. I was desperately upset, and part of me thought maybe I deserved it.
That was six years ago, and to this day we haven't had any contact. When I've tried to call, she has put the phone down. She still means a lot to me and I'm desperately sad that she has never met her grandson and doesn't even know I've just had another baby. She must be very hurt, but tracing my real parents was something I felt I needed to do. I suppose she feels I betrayed her.
Although I'm very fond of my real parents, I can never really be part of their family because I spent 30 years away from them. It makes me sad that I've lost my [adoptive] mother, and I don't know what it would take for her to forgive me now. But I like to think that we could put this to rest before she dies.
Lillian is 50, and gave up her son for adoption in 1963. When he traced her, she agreed to meet him, but then decided to have no further contact with him after that.
Two years ago I got a letter, completely out of the blue, from an adoption tracing agency, saying that this man believed I was his mother and wanted to get in touch with me. The shock was horrific and my heart was beating so hard that I couldn't hold the letter properly.
In 1963, I had a son - I called him Charlie. I was 18, a single mother, and I knew I couldn't keep him. After six weeks he was placed for adoption. I was told where he was going and what the people were like, but I didn't want to know too much - the only way I could cope was to blank it out of my mind.
If you've given up a child, you never stop thinking about him. I always remembered his birthday, and often wondered what he'd done with his life. When he was 18, I half expected him to try and find me, but as the years went by I decided he never would.
That's why getting the letter was such a shock, and I didn't know how to deal with it. I got married at 21 and my husband and I had three children. But I never told him about Charlie. At first I didn't think it was relevant, then as time went on it got harder to bring up a subject like that - it was too big a thing to have kept from him. My husband is a proud man, and old-fashioned; I knew he would disapprove of me having got pregnant, and be furious that I'd kept it a secret for so long.
I eventually agreed to meet Charlie, and went to where he worked. I didn't want him coming to me - it was too close to home in every sense. He is now called Tony, was 30 years old by the time we met and had just got married.
He said he was keen to get to know me better, but that really scared me and I told him I didn't want to stay in touch. I was sorry to hurt him, but we exchanged photos and I tried to explain how I felt. He is a nice lad, and we managed to chat about all kinds of things. But we didn't have much in common and I was relieved that he didn't look like me - it made it easier somehow.
I had told a couple of close friends what happened, and they can't understand how you can reject your own flesh and blood. But the strange thing is that he doesn't feel like my son. I've got special memories of our few weeks together, but meeting that grown-up man wasn't like meeting my child. I hadn't seen him for 30 years, so how could either of us behave as if nothing had happened?
Although I believe I did the right thing, it was a hard decision to make, and there have been times since when I have regretted sending him away like that. In many ways it would have been better if he'd let sleeping dogs lie, and never tried to find me in the first place.
Where to go for help and advice
The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys runs the Government's Adoption Contact Register. For application forms, write to the OPCS, the General Register Office, Contact Register, Smedley Hydro, Trafalgar Road, Birkdale, Southport PR8 2HH.
Norcap: 112 Church Road, Wheatley, Oxon OX33 1LU. Tel: 01865 875000.
National Parents Network: 10 Alandale Crescent, Garforth, Leeds LS25 1DH.
Regional agencies include: After Adoption (Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Lancashire), 0161-839 4930; the Post-adoption Centre (London), 0171- 284 0555; After Adoption (Yorkshire and Humberside), 0113-230 2100; West Midlands Post-adoption Service (Midlands and Birmingham), 0121-5233343; After Adoption (Wales), 01222-575318.