The pain of giving up a baby for adoption is still raw for some mothers 50 years later, as a fascinating two-part documentary showed.
Love Child, was shown on ITV over two successive Sundays in January and was made by Testimony Films, Steve Humphries’ Bristol-based company renowned for producing oral history programmes.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the stigma of illegitimacy was such that many young women in their late teens and early 20s were more or less forced to give up their babies. They were expected to go away to mother and baby homes, and six weeks later, sign over their child to someone else. They were then expected to make a fresh start and forget the babies they gave away.
But the women featured in the programme didn’t forget. Every day, each one of them thought about the babies society wouldn’t let them keep. Some of the stories were heart-wrenching. Doreen, who went to tell her Navy boyfriend she was pregnant only to find he was already married with a family, refused point blank to sign the forms so her son Michael could be adopted. She vividly described throwing the pen across the room as officials tried to force her. Only when she was threatened with being sent to a mental institution did she finally give in.
Parental pressure during the post-war era was a tremendous influence too. Girls who got pregnant were seen to have brought shame on the family. The men involved didn’t come into it at all. Many of these women were ‘sent away’ to mother and baby homes for the duration of the pregnancy and birth, only being allowed home when the baby had been adopted.
The messages were repeated over and over. Young pregnant women were told that adoption would give their baby both a mother and a father and a home full of nice things – things that they wouldn’t be able to do. With little or no support from family or state, it was virtually impossible for a young woman with a baby to support herself financially, or find suitable accommodation.
The women who gave their babies away came across as tortured souls. Most of them were now in their 60s and 70s, but all had vivid recollections of the precious moments they were allowed to spend with their babies before they were adopted.
Though Liz knew that her baby daughter was going to be adopted, she remained heartbroken at not being allowed to say goodbye to her. Her daughter was taken from her cot by the nuns at the mother and baby home as she slept. Liz’s shock at the deviousness of this act was still palpable. Yet this was one of the stories with a happy ending. Though she went on to marry and have seven sons, Liz never forgot her daughter, praying that one day she would try and find her. That moment came when her daughter had a child of her own.
“I had to find out why it happened, why anyone could give up something as precious as the baby I had before me,” she said.
Liz and her daughter – who emigrated to Australia as a child – were happily reunited 34 years later. But not all reunions ended so well. Many mothers were desperate to find out what had happened to their children but it wasn’t until the Children Act of 1975 that children were given the right to search for their birth parents. The birth parents had to hope that their child would choose to get in touch.
The programme focused on two women who were desperate to know more about their birth mothers – both stories ended in heartache as their mothers were found, but chose to get in touch with their daughters only to tell them they didn’t want any contact.
TV antiques expert David Dickinson did manage to trace his birth mother, exchanging regular letters, photographs and phone calls. But they never did meet.
“My mother was always a little wary if I suggested I flew over to Jersey, where she lived. I would have loved to have gone over there but I sensed her reluctance, a feeling that I would disrupt her life. I didn’t want to do that but we remained in close contact, nevertheless,” he said.
The programme offered a moving insight into the experiences of these mothers and their children. It told us as much about the social and sexual upheavals of the last 50 years as it did about our basic human need – to know where we came from.
Though Love Child made thought-provoking television, the spin-off book that accompanies it offers much greater insight into the whole history of adoption in this country. The book, also called Love Child: A Memoir of Adoption, Reunion, Loss and Love by Sue Elliott (Vermilion, £14.99) chronicles the process from before the first Adoption of Children Act in 1926 upto the present day. Elliott, the author, also has her own story to tell – she was adopted as a baby in 1951 and her own experiences pepper this informative work.