The agony of birth parents and children, separated for decades, is explored by the UK television programme Long Lost Family which aims to reunite adult adopted children with their birth families. Anchored by popular presenter Davina McCall and journalist Nicky Campbell [below], it is particularly poignant for Campbell who was himself adopted as a young child. The series is incredibly popular in the UK, concentrating on the emotional stories of children and parents, rather than the nuts and bolts of the search. Some of the interviews are heart-rending. Now in its third series, the programme is sensitive to the emotional difficulties on all sides of the adoption triangle, no judgements are made about the past, the emphasis is on reunion where possible and emotional healing.To give you a taster, here is the story of one birth mother seeking her son.
Helen Harrison tried to find her child for years. In 1977, at the age of 16, she fell pregnant. She hid the condition for five months. When her father found out, he turned her out of the house. “I can remember him just looking at me and saying, ‘Just get out, just get out…’” In the UK in the 1970s, local councils were obliged to provide housing for women in Helen’s situation, but Helen describes the flat she was given was ‘undesirable’ for raising a family.
Helen didn’t know what to do but her father offered a solution, asking her: “What sort of life are you going to offer to a child on your own? There are people out there who desperately want to love a baby.” So she agreed that when the child was born, it would be given up for adoption. “I’m having this baby for someone else,” she thought. “It’s going to be so much better for him.” When the baby boy was born, she called him Antony. “It was the most heart-breaking thing to have to do.” She wrote a letter to him then, at his birth, explaining that she gave him away in order for him to have a better life, and that she would always love him.
She didn’t receive a reply from Antony and had no idea if he had read her words. “I don’t think he’s read the letter,” she told the television programme. Why did Anthony not answer the letter – did he not receive it, did he not know he was adopted, or was the time not right? She writes a second letter for the Long Lost Family team to give to Anthony, should they find him.
In fact Antony, re-named David, had not received the letter. He had been told of his adoption, when he was nine, by his adopted parents. At the news he remembers being terrified a stranger would arrive on the doorstep and take him away. He had a happy childhood. He is traced by Long Lost Family who give him Helen’s new letter. He agrees to meet her and writes a letter in reply. The first thing Helen asks when she hears the team have found Antony is “Is he happy?” She reads aloud David’s letter which starts: “The first and most important thing I want you to know is that whatever the circumstances surrounding the adoption were, I will never be angry, bitter or resentful.”
Helen, who for decades when asked the question ‘how many sons do you have?’ had thought ‘three’ in her head but spoken ‘two’, finally gets to meet her lost son. “I couldn’t imagine the day that I would meet my baby.”
After broadcast, Helen realised the television programme had showed a slightly different version of the events to the one she and her family experienced and, in 2020, she reflects on the passage of time. “My dad was the most loving caring dad anyone could have. He was deeply upset when his 16-year old daughter found herself pregnant by a boy she would never consider being married to. Yes, he did tell me to get out but he never told me I couldn’t come back home. It’s true the social worker I had told me that I would end up living in a high rise flat, but I never went or considered living there with Dave. It was solely my decision to look on my pregnancy as a surrogacy, and I truly believe Dave (Antony) had the right to two loving parents.”
After the reunion, Helen now sees Dave, his wife and children once a month. “We are so alike in many things I truly believe it nature over nurture. We didn’t do the Long Lost Family follow-up programmes as we had achieved a normal mother-son relationship. Also Dave has an adopted sister who didn’t want to think of anyone else as her ‘mother’ other than the Mum who brought her up. Plus, we didn’t want any misinterpretation to happen to rock the smooth ride we are on now.
“I definitely made the right choice back in 1977. Dave had two loving parents, a good life and was loved unconditionally. I went on to meet my husband after going back to work one month after Antony was born. We married and went on to have two sons. As a 17-year old girl, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life was to walk away from a hospital without my baby and then live in absolute hope that I had made the right decision for him. It was done without counselling of any kind. I’m sure it must have had some effect on me – though I’m not aware it stopped me being me – but I can tell you the absolute fulfilment I feel knowing I can be with all three of my children knowing they are all happy safe and living good lives.”
[article updated September 2020]
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When she was 17, Helen walked away from her baby. This is what happened next #adoptionreunion #familyhistory https://wp.me/p5gEM4-14L via @SandraDanby