I went to Temple Hill Catholic Adoption Home to visit my baby every day for the week after he was born. We left the hospital separately. It was 1979 and I was not married and babies were adopted from that place. If I did not let the adoption go ahead I would become an unmarried mother.
There were two long bus trips across the city to reach the place. The bus fare had to be carefully budgeted for. I remember, I will always remember until my last day, the nuns there. One of the indelible memories. The pale closed faces of them, as though they rarely saw daylight, when they brought my baby out to be viewed, tightly wrapped in the yellow blanket I had bought for him. The brief time they allowed me hold him, the detached tone they used in refusing to let me feed him, one time I asked. I will always remember that. At that time I was detached from myself. I see that now. The intense, one-on-one and no other, bond forming between my baby and me in the hospital, the tearing apart when I handed him over to them, headed back to the suburb where I had found work as a nanny, all that intensity had deserted me. I had handed him over and gone back to the only refuge I had, raw with loss. I had only a flickering hope that there would be help for me there to keep him. By the time I got back there everything, what had to be done, seemed immense. To prepare a place of him, to stand my ground, to recover in my body from the birth. Immense. I was, simply, burned out.
I used to be thinking, on those bus journeys, that I ought to be feeling something. Recalling over and over the day when I had left the hospital, had handed him over, the agony and the wrongness of it. The crying jag that had lasted into the evening when I got back, a neighbour handing me one of her valium in the end, so that I crashed. I had fallen through the floor of loss and it had emptied me. I was numb.
I told myself then that, no matter what, no matter my numbness, no matter the nun's contempt when I had said I was keeping him, no matter the shame at having nothing for him, no matter the illegitimacy of keeping him, no matter, no matter, I would bring him home. This time would pass, this emptiness would fill, and he would be home with me.
Everything about being pregnant in Ireland in 1978, for me at least, from the time I was sure that I was, was about managing it for myself. To prevent everything being taken from me (was how it felt). The loss of autonomy, of self control. I wanted to do the best thing, whatever that was, for the baby. I wanted to do the right thing for myself. I did not want to be interfered with. I did not want to be controlled. That prospect was a horror to me.
I was a little adrift back then. I had left school, passed the Leaving Cert more or less, with no sense of what could come next. Also, and increasingly, I was having panic attacks, some very grey days too. It wasn't like there was a name for those days, back then. Though people had them just the same, and doctors knew about them. But you had no words then for anxiety, depression. You were given none. I remember going to a doctor at that time, on my own (there was no-one you could tell or take) and being asked casually whether I had been studying too hard. That was all he asked. He gave me a prescription which I was too terrified to take. He gave me no understanding about what was happening to me. No answers to what I needed to know. I mean, whether I was mad or not, whether I was broken as I feared. Or whether he knew the answer to that. Or if you could become addicted to the Ativan he gave me. If you could get even more lost in the hell you were in. He gave me nothing.
Life went on. Anxiety didn't, entirely, define it. I read my books, went drinking with my friends, helped out at home with the younger children, got a job as a kitchen porter. I went, uncertainly, to random interviews. And, as it turned out, got pregnant.
Missed periods were the only way of knowing, at that time. And so I didn't know for sure until I was three months on and a doctor confirmed it to me. He asked me, casually enough, if I felt it moving yet. I assured him that I did not. Horrified at the reality of it, confirmed at last, unable to imagine a child's presence in me. There were no scan pictures then, no peeking ahead for the sex.
The doctor seem to be oblivious to my situation.
I was not oblivious. To any aspect of it. A girl, I was 19 years old, did not have anything in those days, not in my world. A job until you married. Or after you married, maybe, if you had a professional job. A job that paid you properly, that was. A job worth having. Otherwise, and far more likely, you had a little job, a part time job to keep you going. Your best ambition was to get out of home, achieve a little independence for yourself. A slice of life if you were able. To live in a city, Dublin maybe, where you could breathe. To support a child on your own was not an option in that world. House sharing with other girls, breaking even, was all you expected until maybe you married.
And then there was your shame, your sense of aberrancy, working away at you on the subliminal level, judging. You did not need your parents, the priest, to judge you. You judged yourself.
And yet, it seemed the very job of having to manage this gave me a sense of purpose. I got a job as a childminder in Dublin, (getting myself to Dublin after all). I found the phone number of the Catholic Adoption Society in the Dublin phone phone book at the post Office, arranged an appointment ahead of time, packed my bags and left. Told my sisters before I left. We made a pact of silence outside the sister circle, they gave me what support they could mange within. It was the best that we, all of us, could do.
In the ensuing months of pregnancy life was good. As it turned out. The couple I worked for would not let me stay alone in my room in the evening, when I attempted it, insisting that I live with them as part of their family. They were engaging, kind, and in time started to feel like my tribe. At the six month mark, when I told them about the pregnancy, there was no change in their attitude towards me. That I could detect. Other women I had gotten to know there all expressed a kindly sort of interest, a benevolent kind of curiosity.
It, the baby, would be adopted I told them, told myself, with confidence. I had this. I was in charge of it. There was still some panic, still the grey days, but less than I had experienced before. As though the competence I felt in me about managing this, diminished the other, unnameable, afflicting fears that had dogged my days back home.
The day came for my meeting with the Catholic Adoption Society. A tense bus trip into town, to the massive Georgian building where they were, the solitary wait to be called into a room there, the two nuns facing me over a heavy oak table, had the air of a summonsing. Even though, I reminded myself, I had made the appointment. They pulled out forms from a drawer, asked questions, ticked off boxes, about myself, my family circumstances, our financial and social position back home. It was very smooth, very professional, and they were asking the questions. I was answering obediently enough until I hesitated at the box stipulating that the adoptive parents should be Catholic. They were incredulous. Insisting that I would say yes, that I could only allow adoption to a catholic couple.
The tone of incredulity, the message in it, hardened my will to assert myself in this. I had thought about it before I came there. I had bought into the narrative that the decent, moral thing to do was to allow an adoption, but also that this was my choice, and that the best people would not necessarily be Catholic. The child did not have to raised as a Catholic at all. His life need not be controlled in that way, prescribed as mine had been. As catholics required. I suppose I thought that life should be different fo him or her, the child. Life should be broader, more expansive. I felt this on an instinctive level. His life would be better. He would not be hobbled by the elements shadowing mine. Otherwise what was the point?
I stuck to my guns on that at least. Of course I have no idea whether they respected my choice, whether they ticked that box. They moved on to the next question smoothly enough. They assured me at the end that I was doing the right thing. I remember feeling very small on the way home.
I mostly felt that the child in me, it's welfare, was paramount and that my aberrancy, carelessness was atoned in putting the baby first, I can see in retrospect that that view of things was detached, logical, and apart from the growing reality of the child. I can see that it could have been described as a sort of conforming acquiescence dressed up as logic. Expiation for my sins, at work. A loving sense of the child, my son as it turned out, formed in my mind and my heart as the months passed. He grew, started moving independently, made his presence felt. It became an interaction, a dance with two.
At six months I sat before a Community Welfare Officer after a long wait in a longer queue, wanting to get in and out again, as soon as he would release me. (at that point I was applying for welfare payments as my agreed employment period had passed and, while I continued on with the family much as before, we had agreed I would do this) He asked me all the questions I expected. And then he asked me why I was giving up my child.
Just that, and the whole edifice of my plan, the projected adoption, became makeshift, a house of cards and a possibility only. I answered quite as directly that I couldn't afford to keep a child. I did not realise until I said it that it was that simple. I could not afford to keep him. The Welfare Officer wouldn't have it, went on to describe the kind of social welfare supports available now, the allowances and rent subsistence I could look for. It would be hard, he told me, but it could be done. You did not have to give your baby up. You had a choice.
I mulled it over, agonised, played with this idea of having a choice for the rest of the pregnancy. Should I? Could I? Would they let me? And that was the head stuff. In the heart a web of connections grew between the child and myself. I suppose a problem with this see sawing was that I wasn't able to do any actual planning, preparing for a child I would bring home with me. Other than the adoption planning I mean. I couldn't sit with the decision to keep him with me. I did not feel empowered sufficiently, entitled. I did not feel capable.
It only needed the birth, all 24 hours of it, the emergence of the baby into the world, his firm little body, his head of long dark hair, the vision of him tucked in one arm as I had a cup of tea afterward...yes it took that, to confirm what I already felt. I would not, should not, could not, give him up.
The Dublin neighbours rallied around. Someone had heard of a woman wanting to let a room in her house, there were baby clothes, all the baby stuff, aplenty on that estate and they gathered it up for me. I would have a place to live for now. A way of taking care of a child.
The Community Welfare Officer was right, it was hard. Very hard. A series of dark unheated flats, in one case mice infested ( I was grateful to find it), the bleak queuing for welfare payments, isolation, and an ever present threat of homelessness. Ever present money worries. The worsening of my panic attacks, my grey days shading to black. But then, one red letter day, I stumbled on a book called Self Help for your Nerves. A book of revelations about what ailed me. I began a slow trip back from fear to wellness. The relief of what the writer, Claire Weekes, had to say in that book! A ripple expanding to heal, to transform my ocean of torment and ignorance. And the child thrived. He inspired and motivated me to battle and batter my way into University, a Profession afterward. I was determined to find legitimacy in the world for him, and for myself. As I recovered and thrived people were prepared to give me ground. There were always the helpful ones to extend a hand (there were always the others).
The tide was on the turn in time for Unmarried Mothers. The status of illegitimacy was abolished as a legal status in 1983. I joined a group called Cherish at that time. We were activists, making the personal political. Illegitimacy as a legal status was to be abolished, maintenance payments from fathers enforced in law for the first time. I vividly recall the long and impassioned arguments at meetings about that, the fear that these changes might mean that a man could claim access, custody even, could take control. Particularly if they had to pay. Because they had to pay. No one wanted that. The experience of patriarchal control had been too powerful, too damaging for most of us. The battle for agency, to keep your child, to live as you choose, too hard fought for. Our view of men forever coloured by their behaviour up to that time. Many of us had experienced a blank wall of rejection and denial when the fathers (who would not be fathers) were told about our pregnancies. Accounts abounded about this, about men bringing their mates to court in maintenance applications to say they'd all slept with you. Yes.
DNA testing put paid to that kind of denial a few years later.
My son is a father himself these days. He is successful in the world, a very good father, a good person and what more can any of us hope for in our children. I know that that might have been the story anyway, if he had been adopted. But that was the story when I kept him. And I never doubted the decision. In time our bond was restored and the damage of that final interview with the nun, after he was born, healed. The memory of it never leaves me.
She is ensconced in another tall ceilinged room, barricaded behind another oak table in a room in the hospital, when I am again summonsed on that last morning. Not smiling now. No-one is smiling now. I walk in stiffly, injured form the birth.
(In those days there were humiliating enemas beforehand, administered when you went in, along with rough shaving, so that your first hours in the delivery rooms were spent dashing to and from the toilets in your dressing gown, your stomach cramping alternatively from birth contractions and bowel contortions. I am there still, crying in humiliation, rinsing my dressing gown out at the sink when I don't quite make the toilet bowl as another mother bangs on the door. At the other end of the delivery, vaginal cutting was the order of the day. There were many stitches following your average birth. In between, your crying, howling, or any other eruptions of pain were firmly hushed, were not encouraged, as part of your birth experience. Your plan made not for you)
The thing I say to her, straight away and as I walk in, is that I am keeping the child. I know that this, that she, is the rock I'll likely perish on. I have to come in strong and certain. At first she doesn't seem to hear me, does not respond. She does not look at me. There are more forms, her pen busy ticking, underlining. "And how could you mange that!" she says at last, still looking down. I I tell her how I could manage that, stumbling over my words, delivered to her bent head. She looks at me finally, tells me how inadequate, how lacking my child's life will be, how selfish my choice. I am afraid that that is true but I hang in there anyway, "You'll surely put the child first. It's all arranged. We have very good people for him" she says. "You can surely see it's the right thing to do". And I can see the good people, decent, married, comfortably off, people who deserve a child, unlike myself. I decide to keep it simple, accepting that there is no way I'm going to feel good or valid about this. "I'm keeping my baby' I say to all her objections and persuasions after that. She asks me where I am going to take him, what I have to offer him. I tell her that I am going back to get a place sorted, that there are some people who will help me. She stares at that.
She says that they, the nuns, will take him till I've managed that. "A week, at most, I say. "Oh, we will see," she says. It's all in the tone, what she thinks of me. It seems to me, as I walk out of that room, that her will, her righteousness, will previal no matter what I try to put in place now. But I have her measure and the measure of my own vulnerability, my weakness, in this, and somehow I will do it. I will keep him. I will not give him up.
I go back to my Dublin refuge, and he to their holding centre. I start the work of bringing him home.
Check out Anna's book, " The Chemical Angels Came for Us " (available on Amazon book, apple books, and other platforms.)