"I Was In Shock When I Found Out I Was Adopted" Author Caitríona Palmer Tells All
Caitríona Palmer was raised by loving adoptive parents in Dublin. When she was 6, she was told that she was adopted. When she was in her 20s, she established a connection with her birth mother.
However, the fairytale wasn't quite as she had imagined as her birth mother Sarah wanted to keep their relationship a secret.
The journalist, who now has three young children of her own, tells her story in her honest and heart-breaking book, An Affair with my Mother.
We sat down with her for a chat to find out why she decided to make contact and what made her want to share her story.
I was in shock when I found out I was adopted. I had always known I was special. My parents doted on me and I was the youngest so I was spoiled… in the best sense. The moment my mum told me when I was six years old, it cemented the feeling that I had. I experienced dislocation and grief. From then on, I felt very incomplete.
I went on with life afterwards. I had a happy and secure childhood but the dislocation followed me. I spent time daydreaming about my birth mother. I built her up in my head but at that point, I never felt like I would look for her. As I got older, the emptiness expanded and I realised that I needed to find her.
My adoptive parents, despite their generation, have always been proactive in discussing adoption. I was always made to feel like they would support me if I decided to search for my birth mother. The fact that I was adopted didn’t matter to any of us in terms of our relationships. When I made up my mind that I was going to search for my birth mother, I was terrified of having to break that news.
I went through some brief turbulence during my teenage years but I pulled back from finding her. I think that was a good decision. In my early 20s, I had another moment but I lacked the courage to go forward. In 1999, I was working in post-war Bosnia. I was helping the organisation I worked for identify and exhume those killed during the war. That’s when the penny dropped. In retrospect, I can’t believe I didn’t realise it fully. I was living in a world of the missing. I was helping others find their missing and that’s when it dawned on me that I had to find my missing DNA.
I went back to the source, St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin. This is who my birth mother approached. I had a number for them so I called it. They requested a meeting so I flew to Dublin in May 1999. In retrospect, I realise that she was assessing me and making sure that I was searching for the right reasons. I was placed on a waiting list but this became active the following month. Days later, I was informed that my birth mother, Sarah, had been found. At that point, I felt like the whole thing was moving too quickly. You’re standing on the precipice of happiness or disaster.
It was an extraordinary moment when I got the call. At that point, I only had scant details: a name and the fact that she was married. But these tiny bits felt like volumes. As I was in Bosnia, we first got to know each other via letters which were sent by fax machine. I remember standing, waiting at the fax machine for the first letter to unfurl. Seeing it was extraordinary and it was then that I understood that I was a secret.
The very first meeting was traumatic. I failed to rise to the occasion in the sense that I was very stoic and didn’t cry. I think I was numb and in shock. I was also faced with the fact that my birth mother could never have lived up to the idea in my head. She wasn’t a goddess but a simple, wonderful woman. For us, bonding came a littler later but when it happened, it was the fairytale.
Initially, I understood that she needed time to adjust and that she would eventually tell her family. I was very agreeable. I understood the forces that had created the secret. Also, she was my mother and I wanted her in my life on whatever terms.
I thought every year that it would happen. I thought it was impossible that we hadn’t been rumbled. I was fearful of running into people and I couldn’t believe that we got away with it for so long. The child in me hoped that she would reveal me. As time passed and I became a mother myself, it grew harder for me. The big thing was that I felt my children deserved better. After giving birth to my first child, I began to really think about the situation.
The more I looked, the more I realised I wasn’t alone. I couldn’t understand the situation in a newly secularised Ireland. It seemed to me an extraordinary legacy of shame. I discovered that her double life was a result of the shame she felt in 1972. She’s never been able to stop that. I am a source of agony for her and that is such a tragedy. Time is running out and I want people to be aware that the past is not just the past, sometimes it’s the present and I’m living proof of that.
For now, the affair continues. Sarah hasn’t responded to me for some time. I requested her permission for the book and she agreed. I was able to interview her for it but she asked that I keep it anonymous which I believe I’ve done. I speculate that it is difficult for her to be in the shadows. I will continue to send her messages and I hope that she’ll come back.
In a way, the book is written for my children because my story is theirs. I wanted to gift my life to them and break the generational legacy of secrecy. This is a sad story but the real tragedy is that Sarah is missing out on their lives. I would love for Sarah to be a grandmother to my kids and that’s being denied to them. I’ve dealt with my loss but it pains me that my children are also denied.
An Affair with my Mother (€19.99) is available in bookstores nationwide and online now!