Philomena…and a few steps backward


There’s a new adoption-related movie out that is getting good reviews. Philomena, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena by Martin Sixsmith, is the account of an Irish woman’s fifty-year search for the son she was coerced to surrender to adoption. The subject matter, and the fact that it stars the amazing Judi Dench, means I can’t wait to see it.

This morning on my drive to work I was listening to an interview on CBC’s The Current with the book’s author, who also happens to be the journalist who helped Philomena track down her son in America. I was touched as I heard the account of how mother and son’s path’s crossed more than once over the years as they both tried to obtain information about the other from the convent where Philomena was forced to sign away her parental rights. I was angry at the hard-hearted nuns who refused to release information that would have allowed mother and son to reunite. I was appalled by the belief of the day (Philomena gave birth in 1952) that an unmarried woman was unfit to raise a child.  And I was grieved when I learned that Philomena’s son Anthony (or Michael as he was named by his adoptive parents) died before she was able to reunite with him.

I’m pleased that his movie is bringing attention to the atrocities committed in the past that separated too many children from their mothers. We’re finally beginning to acknowledge the damage that was done to countless mothers and children by heartless policies that forced so many women to surrender their babies.

In 2012, Dan Rather reported on forced practices from Australia, Spain, Ireland, and America in his Adopted or Abducted report. Earlier this year former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard issued an apology on behalf of the Australian government to those affected by forced adoption practices. The United Church in Canada has launched a probe into maternity home practices from the 1940s to the 1970s where unmarried women were deemed unfit and coerced into giving their children up for adoption; so far they’ve stopped short of making an apology.

In the United States it’s commonly known as The Baby Scoop Era; the period between 1940 and 1970 when it is estimated that four million mothers surrendered newborn babies to adoption. There are no similar statistics compiled for Canada but, make no mistake, the practice was rampant there as well.

I was adopted during the Baby Scoop Era but my story is different. The woman who gave birth to me was not a naïve young woman who made a mistake. My birth mother was forty years old and had already surrendered a son to adoption by a family member; had another son whom she raised; and would, five years after giving me up, surrender another baby girl in a closed adoption. Four children with four different fathers. Naïve? Not so much. The argument could be made that if she had been given adequate social and economic support she could have raised all four of her children herself; of course no one can say for certain.

Unlike Philomena’s story, in my case it was my birth mother who died before I could reunite with her. I’ve wrestled with resentment toward her since I first learned the truth so many years ago. When I encounter adoption stories I often feel like I’m on the outside looking in because it seemed that she made a conscious choice not to parent me and my siblings. I’ve read my adoption file and court transcript when she relinquished her right to me; I know the words she spoke.

“It’s not that I’m unwilling to look after her. It’s not what I want; it’s what’s best for her.”

Did she believe it was best for me to be separated from her, or was she was speaking from a place of confusion, desperation, and parroting the words of well-meaning social workers? Most likely it was a combination of both. I suppose I was touched by that Baby Scoop Era philosophy after all.

The words that mean the most to me from the entire adoption file are these: “Mother is quite disturbed in separation from child.”

On some selfish, visceral level, it pleases me to know she was quite disturbed. After all, I’ve been “quite disturbed” in varying degrees for almost fifty-five years. I’m not proud of these feelings; I don’t dwell on them; and I don’t like the part of me that feels them. That “grief to gratitude” that I wrote about in Two Hearts? Yeah, sometimes I take a few steps back into the grief.

I doubt that adoption will ever go away; I’m not convinced it should. There are situations where adoption (not the shame-based forced adoption climate of the past) is in the best interest of a child. Today, I’m pleased that the movie Philomena is gaining popularity, gaining awards, and shedding light where so darkness and shame reigned for too many years.

I intend to see it as soon as I can.


I’m a writer, reader, and creative. I thought by now I’d have things figured out, but I keep coming up with more questions. I think that’s okay. I’m here most mornings pondering ordinary things and the thin places where faith intersects.
  1. “Philomena” is on my list of movies to see this week too. Judi Dench in the starring role is appealing too.

    I can feel your strong emotion as you write though I cannot begin to comprehend the pain you have endured. It seems as though the grief and gratitude cycle is recursive, and you may never arrive at gratitude as a destination. I would imagine that seeing the Baby Scoop Era highlighted in the media just now provides some sort of gratification. I do remember one or two girls in my high school class disappearing. Did they go to the Florence Critteton Home for Girls? I wonder . . . .

    1. “It seems as though the grief and gratitude cycle is recursive.” I think you nailed it, Marian, and I suspect it is this way with grief of all kinds. We may wish for a complete healing but there remains some remnant–whether it be large or small–of that original wounding. It can be a comfort when we’re speaking about grief over the loss of a loved one and we’re reminded of the joy of having them in our life and the void their leaving has left. It can be equally as frustrating when it is grief over something over which you had no control and that caused harm. Food for thought.

  2. This movie intrigues me, too, Linda and is also on my ‘to see’ list.
    It must give you some satisfaction to have a topic so dear to your heart show up on the big screen.

    1. I’m delighted that the subject of adoption has come into the light, so to speak. There have been too many years of secrecy and shame.

      Thanks for stopping by, Denise. I’m sending you an email.

  3. I definitely want to see this one. You can’t go wrong with Dame Judi Dench in the lead! I’m glad there’s good publicity and positive reviews….perhaps awards.
    Adoption is still a topic that isn’t all used up for books and films. P.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post, Linda. I intend to see the movie too. It’s great that the media is shining a light on adoption, especially adoptions from the Baby Scoop Era. The open adoption trend that’s popular today seems much healthier for all parties.

    1. I just got back from seeing this! Better win a few Oscars!!!! Wow!!!

  5. Dear Linda, I read your posting and the first comment with great interest as I could feel in your writing your grief and a little of your anger and resolve and acceptance of life as its been. Sometimes I think that we are never done with grieving. I still grieve the death of a dear friend who was, if anyone has ever been, a soulmate to me. She died in 1998 and sometimes the grief over her passing is almost tangible. And you have so much to grieve–a whole lifetime of what might have been. And yet out of that grief has come a book that can help so many, many people. I hope it is reaching them. Peace.

  6. I want to see it too, Linda. I can only imagine the grief you must feel at times. I’ve learned a lot about grief this year that I never knew before. I think it is possible it never goes away but we learn how to live around it. I can say that a friend of mine gave up a daughter for adoption when she found herself to be pregnant as a single mother. She truly was convinced by those who meant well, that it was the best choice for the baby. She had recently reconnected with her birth daughter when I first met her, but her daughter is not forgiving, and having had her curiosity satisfied shows little to no interest in having a relation with her birth mother. This has been breaking my friend’s heart. She feels like she is losing the baby all over again.

    Through her I met a few other women who were victims of the baby scoop era. They have very bitter feelings towards those who coerced/forced them to give up their children. I, too, am glad this movie is bringing the topic to the forefront once again.

  7. I saw the movie last week and really enjoyed it, though the grief of the mother was almost unbearable. We see only a little about the grief of the child, but I thought of you immediately when I was watching. I imagine that it may have been difficult to view, and I would be interested in your description of watching it.

    Feeling with you in the many transitions in your life right now.

  8. I can understand you feeling ‘left out’ with other adoptees due to your circumstances. My sister’s biological mother was just very selfish, and she has no regrets about giving my sister up for adoption. She even told my sister that she found out the was pregnant after it was too late to have an abortion. Who says that to their child??
    My story is a bit different too. My mother had a relationship with my father, who then got married- his wife knew about my mother, and they carried on with the relationship. He got both his wife and my mother pregnant at the same time, pretty much. My half sister is 3 months older than me. He forced my mother to give me up for adoption, as did my mother’s mother, who didn’t want an illegitimate baby in the family. She was very abusive towards my mother. My mother’s cousins offered to adopt me, but my father wouldn’t allow it, so I was adopted out.

    Absolutely, there are biological mothers who do not give a damn about their kids, and in my mind, are child abusers for just giving up their kids because they can’t be bothered. And the worst thing is that society says things like ‘She loved you enough to give you away’. My sister always believed this, until she met her mother and was sorely disappointed.
    And in my mothers case, she had no choice but to give me away.

    The Baby Scoop Era was vile. I believe it’s an atrocity against women and children. And society enabled it by demonising single, pregnant women, and entitled adoptive parents who believed they were better than these women. The whole thing is sick. Biological mothers were treated like dirt, and adoptive parents are practically sainted.

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