The baby or the fridge

1960 was a big year for my adopting parents. First came the infertility diagnosis. Then a new baby arrived with little warning and no fanfare. Followed within days by a new refrigerator.

I was one of over 103,000 New Zealand babies forcibly removed from my single mother. Her dying mother sent her to the doctor’s house with a couple of months to spare. The generous Dr Gerald Gleeson put her to work cleaning and scrubbing. Weeks before I was born he promised me away to the “an attractive young couple who belong to the Church of England."

It was a typical story. The same thing happened in Canada. They describe it as one of their “most agonising scandals and one which for decades was covered up – the forced adoption of hundreds of thousands of babies born to unmarried mothers.” A full-scale inquiry is ongoing.

In New Zealand, we pretend it never happened.

In the total absence of government action, apology or investigation, I’ve been unraveling New Zealand’s history of forced adoption.

We’ve wrapped adoption in secrecy, tied it up with clichés and obfuscated the truth at every turn. We’ve conflated orphans with the illegitimate. We’ve never once paused to inquire about outcomes.

With so much around adoption shrouded in legal black holes and social expectation, most adopted people struggle to talk about it. Not only their own but the practice itself.

If you experience a difficult time in your natural born family, people understand. A violent father? A cold mother? There’s plenty of support for that trauma. .

But if you’re adopted that toxic family story takes on another element. When you try to speak about it, someone will ask the ‘what-ifs’. What if you’d been aborted? What if your natural family were worse? You could have grown up in an orphanage? In care? On the streets?

This is often followed by the, “I know a happy adoptee,” narrative. As if that one person's experience is more significant than everything you’ve lost. And all the wrongs of being taken from your mother and stripped of your identity are irrelevant.

But what if you do grow up in a loving adopted family? And you really are that ‘happy adopted person?’

In many ways, this makes it more difficult. If you feel even the slightest bit ‘not right’ in your happy family there’s nowhere to place those feelings. To express doubts, to acknowledge a yearning for blood in the face of good parenting is almost impossible. Even to yourself.

And so the fog descends. The disconnect between your inner life and external expectations is vast. Often the fog is preferable.

Whether you recognise it or not, adoption is trauma. In truth both the idyllic and the unfit family is invested in being better than the mother they took you from. The person you might have been, the life you would have lived, if not for them, is rarely acknowledged. But no matter the quality of your upbringing, we all live with a sense of a yearning for blood connections.

For me, as young teen all I wanted was someone who looked like me. I had to wait until I gave birth to my first daughter. She arrived with fine hair and delicate features. But then I realised there were no photos of me until I was three months old. I had no idea if I looked like her as a new baby. No reason, my adopting mother said, casually, when asked. “I was too busy to take photos.”

Except for that camera-worthy new refrigerator. It was either me or the fridge. It’s obvious who won. I have the photo to prove it.