Umasked: the complexities of being a chosen child

I am delighted to welcome Philippa Linton to my website today, as she guests for the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. Philippa is incredibly open and vulnerable about her journey as an adopted child…

I often watch Long Lost Family. It’s a good TV programme, done with sensitivity and respect. Any one of those stories could be mine.

I grew up knowing I was adopted. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know. My very favourite bedtime story as a small child was my mother telling me how she and Daddy had gone to a special house of babies and had picked me out especially. (I never wondered what became of the other babies.)

I even knew my original name, the one I was given by my birth mother (the correct term to use, not ‘real’ mother or ‘natural’ mother). This was unusual for my era (I was born in 1962), because adoption was very much a closed affair. Many adoptees from that time would not have known their original names.

The shadows appear

I had a (mostly) happy childhood, apart from some difficulties at school. I belonged to a large, loving, affectionate family. But there were shadows. When I was about eight years old, we were out on one of our family walks in a park, and suddenly, out of the blue, I asked my mother: ‘If my mummy saw me now, would she recognise me?’ My mother can’t remember how she responded to this (and neither can I) but, knowing her, she would have given a kind and wise reply. My question must have jolted her though.

The shadows also arose in dreams. I had occasional nightmares about being abandoned – in one dream, I was left stranded on the pavement, staring after my adoptive mother as she got in her car and drove away from me without a backward glance.

This terrible dream was not a comment on my relationship with my adoptive mother. She was – and is – a good, loving mother. The nightmare brought to the surface a fear I couldn’t express, indeed was hardly aware of – a deep fear of rejection and abandonment that the strong bond with my adoptive family couldn’t entirely heal. There was an empty space inside me. Certainly a God-shaped space, and also a ‘mother’-shaped space – and a ‘father-shaped’ space. My kind, funny, wise adoptive father was absolutely everything a father should be, but that space was still there.

My birth parents felt no more real than ghosts. It was impossible to believe that somewhere out there in the world were two people who had been responsible for bringing me into existence. Sometimes I would gaze into the mirror and wonder where my features came from – my light brown hair, my blue-grey eyes, the shape of my face. Whose genes had I inherited? Where had I come from? Who was I? Unanswerable questions. I shoved them to the back of my mind.

Finding faith

When I was fourteen, I became a Christian. I discovered Psalm 139, which spoke to me of a God who loves like a father. At the same time, my dad asked if I would like to see my adoption file. It contained my adoption certificate, and a series of letters from the secretary of the society that had processed the adoption. Those letters contained a precious quote from my birth mother, who said she knew she had done the right thing and that I would have everything in life I should have. (In later years, I learned to read between the lines of that letter: girls in her situation were expected to say that kind of thing as they gave up their precious babies.)

This was a big moment though. My birth mum had stepped forward from the shadows into the light. She was real. She was out there somewhere. But it would be a very long time before I felt ready to search for her.

The years went by. Something began to shift as I entered my early thirties. I hadn’t found a life-partner, and it looked as if I might never have children. I would be leaving no genetic trace of myself on this earth. As a Christian, this didn’t haunt me as much as it might have done – we believe in building an eternal legacy, not a purely earth-bound one. But the persistent vague feeling of emptiness, restlessness, the sense of something missing, was even more powerful than the desire to experience pregnancy and have children of my own.

Reaching a life-changing decision

In autumn 1996, my life changed. I watched a documentary on Channel 4 called Love Child, about four women who’d had to give up their babies for adoption in the 1960s. Despite the changing social attitudes of the sexual revolution, up until the late 1960s girls who got pregnant out of wedlock were still treated with great harshness. I had always been angry on behalf of that generation of women – I was incensed by the hypocrisy that would punish a woman for getting pregnant and yet at the same time refuse to condemn the man who had got her in that state. (I did come to understand that not every birth father of that generation was a callous seducer. Some young birth fathers were absolutely devastated that their children were given up for adoption – but, like their unmarried girlfriends, they were given no choice in the matter.)

I began watching that programme with no thought of tracing. I wanted to watch it because I’d never seen anything told from the birth parents’ point of view before. As the closing credits rolled, I had reached a life-changing decision. I decided to apply for a copy of my birth certificate and to search for my birth mother, which would also mean meeting with a social worker so she could access my birth records on my behalf. Once I’d made up my mind to begin this journey, there was no stopping me. I was 34 and knew that I had the emotional and spiritual maturity to cope with whatever I uncovered on my search. An inner voice was urging me, ‘You’ve got to do it now. Now. Do it NOW.’

I’m so glad I listened to that inner voice. The quest proved surprisingly easy in the end, thanks to a couple of extraordinary breakthroughs and the support of three fabulous social workers. To cut a long story short, I finally met my birth mother in October 1997, exactly a year after I set the wheels in motion. And I looked just like her.

A secure identity

We knew each other for thirteen years. Sadly, she died in 2010. I wish that we’d had longer. But I am so glad I searched. I had put her mind at rest: her lost daughter had at last found her. I also gained a wonderful new family, and remain in touch with them. I embrace my bonds by nurture and nature equally.

When I found my birth mum, something in me clicked into place. I felt more whole and secure in my identity. I celebrate being an adoptee, a chosen child much loved and cherished. It’s not my adoption I have an issue with – I love my adoptive family dearly and regard adoption as a blessing. It’s the relinquishment that is the issue, the ‘primal wound’ that results when you separate a child from his or her birth mother – for whatever reason, even if it’s a good reason (if the parent is abusive, for example). That primal wounding will haunt the adoptee all their days. Adoption is still a blessing. But the shadows have to be faced realistically, with eyes wide open.

I don’t want to suggest that reunions are a magical answer to a life-long struggle with rejection and identity. For non-adopted people, these stories of reunion between mother and child are romantic. I understand that, and indeed embrace it. But reunions are also complex. My story had a happy ending. But I know too that sometimes the parent doesn’t wish to be found, usually because facing the past is just too painful for them – especially if they were shamed and treated cruelly at the time. And sometimes it’s the adopted person who pulls away from the birth parent yearning for their lost child. There are also adoptees whose adoptions were a disaster – and when they trace their birth parents, that doesn’t work out either. My heart aches for them. I also ache for the children left stranded in the care system. No social worker, no matter how caring and professional, can be an adequate substitute for the lack of parents.

Making myself vulnerable

So what has the adoptee’s search for identity and origins got to do with wearing masks?

Writing this piece has made me feel shy about ‘unmasking’. It has made me open up about my inner feelings, which is risky, and that’s a good thing. Emotions hurt. Love hurts. Rejection hurts, so it feels safer to place yourself in a position where you can’t be rejected. There can still be a lost little girl inside me, despite the successful reunion, despite all the love and support I’ve had in my life, despite the inner healing that finding my identity in Christ brought.

And also – making myself really vulnerable here – I still wonder if my ambiguous attitude to a life-long singleness (I’ve had a couple of intense romances but nothing long-term ever developed) is connected to a deep fear that no man would ever be interested in me? If the man responsible for my conception had never shown an interest in me (this was always my assumption and it turned out to be correct), why would any other man? I know I mustn’t give into such a negative belief, and know I must forgive the shadowy man who fathered me.

It is these verses in particular that speak strength and healing to me:

‘Even though my father and mother have left me, Adonai will care for me.’
(Psalm 27:10, Complete Jewish Bible)

‘The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ (Romans 8:15, NIV)

And of course Psalm 139:

13For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Philippa Linton is a Lay Reader in a local Anglican church.  Her day job is working for the Education & Learning Department of the United Reformed Church.  She likes creative writing, going to the cinema and cats.


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