The day I met my birth mother (Part one)

‘William David Paget’ began the address on the envelope. Whoever could be addressing me in such a formal way?

Ministry of Social Development.

Then I noticed the sender’s address the exterior of the envelope – Department of Social Welfare. Surely no-one was alleging that I might be the father of her child.

Thinking about that momentous day many years later, it seems rather odd that I harboured thoughts of that nature. However, at the time the thought did cross my mind.

Nervously opening the letter I found it to be just a short paragraph and signed by a senior social worker. ‘ I would be grateful if you could contact me at your convenience about a personal matter’.

A ‘personal matter’? Now the anxiety bells were well ‘n truly ringing.

After a couple of days I plucked up the courage to call the sender. So began one of the strangest and emotionally-challenging phone calls that I can ever remember.

‘Thank you for calling, Mr Paget. Before I can discuss the reason why I have asked you to contact me I need to get some identifying details from you – hope you don’t mind.’

‘No, no, of course not’, I remember stuttering. What if I said ‘no’, I thought? Would DSW issue a warrant of some nature?

‘ William, you were born on … , and you are the son of …, and your father was born in …, and your mother’s date of birth was …, and her maiden name …? The questions seemed to go on and on. What if I gave an incorrect answer?

‘Thank you, William, I have some important news for you. You are aware that you were adopted at birth?’

‘Yes’, I answered.

Apparently, I became aware of that fact at a tender age. Given that I had such caring, loving adoptive parents, I’m not sure how that occurred.

When my grandparents arrived to see my younger brother, Tom, for the first time, I was said to have met them gleefully with the moving announcement that ‘mummy has a real baby’. Given that I would have been only 4, going on 5, at the time, I can’t believe it. However, the story forms part of our family mythology.

‘William, are you aware that both birth parents and adoptees can now try and make contact with one another?

‘Yes’, I was.

In fact, in a professional capacity I had some years before assisted a birth-mother to trace her son. She reclaimed him from the long-term foster parents with whom he had been living. He was by now a teenager.

Having never been a parent, and being temperamentally unsuited to the task, she didn’t know how to cope. Within a few years he became a ‘juvenile delinquent’. I suspect he may be a ‘career criminal’ these days.

 ‘William, your birth mother has approached our department and asked us to try and trace you. How do you feel about that’?

‘How did I feel? What a question.

When Jonathan Hunt’s private members’ bill became law in the form of the Adult Adoption Information Act 1986, I remember being quite disinterested in  trying to find my birth parents – if they were still alive. In my mind I saw it as a form of disloyalty to my mother (and late father).

If I was ever to embark on the task it would only happen after my mother had passed away. On that I was quite unbending, despite considerable pressure from my wife at the time.

She was always on at me to ‘find my mother’. I remember getting especially grumpy with her one day at a petrol station, when she claimed that a fellow motorist (an elderly man with a large nose and a white beard), could well be my father.

Now I had been gazumped, so to speak – my birth mother was trying to to find me. How was I going to respond to her?

‘You are aware, William, that you have the right to put a veto on your mother’s request. We can simply inform her that you do not wish to have any form of contact with her. That veto lasts for up to 10 years.’

Vetoing her request – wow! I was sufficiently together to appreciate that sounded rather harsh.  Before I could respond the social worker broke the silence.

‘Your mother has written a letter to you which she has asked to pass on to you – if you would be willing to read it. In fact, there are two letters.’

‘Two letters – you mean she’s written twice?’

 ‘No, the other letter is from your sister. Not long after you were born your birth mother married your birth father and they had two children – a boy and a girl.’

By now my heart was well ‘n truly pumping. While I might have been able to handle discovering my birth mother, the fact that she’d subsequently had other children with my birth father was almost too much to take.

Sensing my anxiety, the social worker did his best to calm me. He was obviously well-trained for the delicate task of handling possible reunions.

‘Take as much time as you need to think about it. Then, if you wish to collect the letters, please come and see me. In the meantime, are you happy for me to tell your birth mother that we’ve located you, and that you are considering her request.’

‘Of course.’ Belatedly, I was starting to think about my birth mother – of her courage in making contact with DSW.

It took me at least a week to pluck up the courage to collect the letters. Thinking about it now, that seems odd. At the time I told no-one. That also seems odd.

Opening the letters wasn’t going to be easy. I hit upon a support strategy.

I had a good friend at the time who had two adopted daughters. I called her. ‘Irene, can I ask you a special favour? Would you mind meeting me in the city later today ? I’ll tell you the reason when I see you.’

‘Sounds a bit mysterious’, was her cheeky response.

We met a few hours’ later. I was clutching the two unopened letters. ‘Can we drive to the beach for a chat?’

‘This really is mysterious. You haven’t done anything wrong?’, she inquired, with a chuckle.

We found a suitable place to park. I handed her the letters. ‘Would you mind opening these and reading the contents to me?’

Coming from a professional theatrical background she was skilled in handling tense moments. With a flourish she grabbed the letters and proceeded to read them.

By now tears were streaming down my face. She gave me a big hug.

‘Wow, you sure are a man full of surprises’. Surprises seemed a bit of an understatement. It seemed right out of a movie script. Both letters were beautifully written. Perhaps there had been numerous drafts preceding them?

The invitation to consider making contact was sensitively couched. If I felt like making contact I could do so – a phone number was given. If not , for whatever reason, she would understand.

‘So, what are you going to do?’, asked Irene. ”She sounds very nice. So does your sister.’

‘I need to think about it’ – and so I did, for a couple of weeks. Then a reality check hit me – how would my both mother be interpreting my unwillingness to make contact? What about her feelings? I considered a letter, then thought better of it. What about a phone-call? If things got a little tense, we could politely end it.

It was late on a Sunday afternoon when I called. Eventually, someone came to the phone.

‘Hello.’ Even in that one word an English accent was apparent.

‘Hello, it’s William calling. I got your letter. Is it convenient to talk to you at this time?’

(This is  the first of a two parter on a mother and son’s reunion)

Share this:

Bill is a freelance writer based in Auckland.