real life

"Mum was 18 when her newborn baby was taken away from her. Then I found him accidentally."

I got swept up in a wave of people doing Ancestry DNA tests.

Your DNA fingerprint links up with everyone else who has done the test. At first there were lots of fourth and fifth cousins, where we shared a great-great-great-great relative. But then one man contacted me through the site to point out that we were very closely linked.

I asked him which side of my family – maternal or paternal – but he was unable to answer given his father had been adopted. He only had his dad’s mother’s birth name, which they recently searched for and found from an adoption agency in Scotland.

He gave me her full name, place and date of birth. I replied: “That woman is my mother. Your father is my brother.”

Which made this man my nephew.

There was silence for a few days, then I got this response: “OMG. I was so shocked I had to process. We’ve been looking for your mother for many years. Dad actually teared up when I showed him our texts, which I’ve never seen him do before. Did you know my dad existed?”

I had no clue.

I phoned my dad, who was divorced from my mum a long time ago. It turns out that 58 years ago, Mum was an 18-year old nurse in South Africa and fell in love with an Afrikaans man who was in hospital with a broken leg. My conservative Scottish grandmother was horrified, because the man was dark-skinned and Afrikaans. This was at the height of apartheid.

So Mum was bundled off back to Scotland, to a cooking school in Edinburgh. However, a few months later, she realised she was pregnant. She told nobody. By now, she had met up with my dad, who she knew from her church days in South Africa, who was studying at a nearby University. They’d become close friends.

“Didn’t you notice she was getting fatter and fatter?” I asked Dad.

My rather vague dad, not the most observant person, said it had been winter. He reckons Mum might not have even admitted to herself what was really happening – that she might have been in deep denial. She ended up giving birth alone, with no preparation, and nobody to turn to. Her landlady obviously realised what was going on and made sure my mother received assistance and care from a Home for Unwed Mothers.

Today, when having a baby out of wedlock is normal and carries little to no negative stigma in most parts of the world, for women in the 1950s, this was the epitome of disrepute.

Mum kept her newborn a secret from her forbidding mother for a few weeks, but eventually my grandmother found out and forced my Mum to give her newborn son up for adoption. Being under 21 years old, Mum helplessly stood by while her baby was taken away forever.

A year later, she fell pregnant again, and Mum and Dad married. She went on to have five more children over the next eight years. She did not speak to her mother again for more than a decade, and at no stage in our lives did she ever give us any clue about our adopted brother or speak of her heartbreaking experience.

One of my sisters and I began to correspond with our new nephew and his dad, Graeme – our brother. When Graeme heard he had sisters and brothers, he cried for joy as he was an only child and his step-parents were long dead. When I spoke to him for the first time on the phone, he again sobbed for the mother he did not know, and for a life he didn’t have.


Mia Freedman spoke to Anne Stephens about meeting her son Andrew for the first time after giving birth to him 37 years ago, on the No Filter podcast.  Post continues below. 

But how was I going to speak to my mum about it? I was afraid to raise Graeme with her as she is an 82-year old woman living alone in the north of Scotland and had recently lost her long-term partner to dementia. So I gave my mother a small hint…. “I found a close relative on an Ancestry site,” I said, but she didn’t pick it up. I wasn’t sure if that was because she chose not to discuss it, or because she had buried it so deeply she didn’t want to remember.

But six months later, my one sister and I decided to have a meeting in London, on our way to our mother, to meet him and one of our nephews. He brought along all his birth and adoption documentation, in case we thought he was some arbitrary conman, and I took a compiled photo album of his new brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews.

Oh, what a joyful few days of getting to know one another. It didn’t feel awkward or weird at all, it was warm and loving – they felt exactly and immediately like family, and we talked so much and so fast and there was honestly an instant connection.

When we left to go up to Scotland to see Mum, he gave us a letter to give to her. It was the kindest, most appropriate and touching letter reaching out to his birth mother. I couldn’t hold back my own tears as he read it to my sister and I, to check it was ok to give to her. He was so respectful of her feelings and was so anxious not to frighten or upset her.

So here is how we told mum.

“You know how you always say that if there is anything we ever want to discuss or ask you about anything, we should do it now while you are still with us?” we said.

“Well, we found your oldest son.”

Mum went white. She started shaking. She was so embarrassed. She was also shocked and humiliated. It took a while for her to calm down. She kept referring to her shame and disgrace and how, even now, nobody could ever know because her small village would ostracise her.

We gave her the letter. “I have rejected him once, I cannot do that to him again,” she said. It took Mum a few weeks, but then they started corresponding, and it snowballed into phone calls. Now they speak every few days. They’ve discovered just how much genetics determines personality as they find more and more things they have in common. Mum has also found out that she is a great grandma.

COVID-19 stopped their planned face-to-face meeting. That will have to wait until flights resume between Ireland and Scotland. My sister and I have kept up with calls and emails and have our own Facebook family group.

One sister and two of our brothers are not interested in any relationship with Graeme, which he says he understands, though I know he must be hurt by that.

But what a deep pleasure it has been to find another big brother, what a relief that my mum now has someone of her own living in her part of the world, and after COVID-19, I can’t wait for all of us to meet up as one big family.

Feature Image: Supplied.