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No returning to 'normal' life for women after giving up babies

Caitriona Palmer, Irish Independent 22 July 2013

After eight years living in the United States, I thought I had become inured to the absurdity of American reality television. Until last week, while on a whim, I flicked on the remote and tuned into Oxygen Channel's controversial reality show, 'I'm Having Their Baby'.

The docu-series show follows women across America struggling with unplanned pregnancies, following them in the months before their due date as they make the heart-rending decision to place their newborn babies up for adoption. Their reasons are complex and nuanced: there are unmarried teenagers, a wife desperate to win back her husband after falling pregnant during an extramarital affair, and a multitude of low-income mothers too weary and poor to contemplate adding another child to the mix.

Against the backdrop of tear-jerking music and emotional clips from pregnancy "diary cams", these pregnant women are portrayed as maternal martyrs making the ultimate sacrifice – selflessly giving away their babies to help childless couples realise dreams of a real family. "You can give me something I can't give myself," a tearful adoptive mother tells a young birth mother.

Giving your baby away is portrayed in the series as a one-time event, a traumatic experience that can be erased once the women have returned to their "normal" lives, filling in the gap of the once-real baby with a return to work, school and the company of bar-hopping friends. Weeks after giving up their babies, some of the women appear in post-adoption video cams on the show. They seem pale, glassy-eyed, robotic.

Let's cut to the chase here. Adoption – despite the best of intentions – is no fairytale. It is heartbreaking for the birth families, rife with complexities and rarely meets the expectations of all parties involved. And no woman who ever gives her child away for adoption returns to a "normal" life.

Take my natural mother, for example. Forty-one years ago in Dublin, she gave me up for adoption. Her life – rife with anxiety, shame and deep, deep regret – has never been the same since.

Knocked up by a swaggering man-about-town in a rural Irish outpost, my natural mother – let's call her Sarah, not her real name – had no choice but to give me away. In 1972, the year of my birth, there was still no single mother's allowance. Keeping me would have meant losing her job, her family, her home and any chance at a respectable future. My birth father refused to acknowledge the pregnancy. Alone, abandoned, she fled to Dublin where a Catholic charity offered to help.

Like many of the women in "I'm Having Their Baby", Sarah was told – in her case by the nuns – that she was "doing the right thing". Giving me up was best for everyone involved, they told her. Once I had been dispatched to a "good" family, she could forget about the whole sorry incident, find a nice man, get married and get on with her life.

Except that it wasn't so simple.

Giving away the long-limbed baby with the mop of black hair that she nuzzled for two days in a Dublin city hospital wasn't the walk in the park that everyone told Sarah it would be. It hurt like hell. It ripped her heart in two. Engorged with milk, suffused with hormones, bewildered and lost without her little girl she left the hospital in a daze and took to her bed. She cried for days.

In time, as she had been told to do, she pulled herself together but nothing was ever the same. Traumatised, stigmatised, she re-emerged into the light. She got a job, went back to dating, met a guy, married him and had more kids. She pushed her pain down deep inside and created a whole new persona. But the aching hole in her heart persisted. And the spectre of the lost baby loomed in everything that she did.

"You are never you again," she once told me. "You are two people. You are split in two. You go and you do whatever it is you have to do. But then there is the other part of you that is constantly wondering and wondering."

Logically, I knew what Sarah went through in the hours, days and months following my birth, but not until watching the train-wreck parade of vulnerable women on "I'm Having Their Baby" did I fully understand the magnitude of her pain.

I have not been able to get through one episode without weeping. The scenes where the young mothers hold their tiny babies for the last time – and sign relinquishment papers a mere 24 hours after birth – are heart-shattering and unreal.

In many cases, these women are making the right decisions for them at that exact moment in time and I applaud their courage and grit. But the premise in "I'm Having Their Baby" that they can, post-adoption, resume a "normal" life does not belong on reality television but in pure fantasy.

Once, over coffee in Dublin, I screwed up the courage to ask Sarah whether she would choose adoption again if she could go back in time.

Sarah, characteristically shy and a little unsure of herself, looked up and met me square in the eye. I was taken aback by her defiance.

"I would have kept you," she told me, holding my gaze. "Definitely. Definitely. Definitely.

"Maybe I wouldn't have been the greatest of mothers, but at least you would have been there."

Irish Independent

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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