The world of only children

Adopted Child Searches Decades for His Mother

Philomena in the Oscar nominated film could have been his mother.

Tim at Sean Ross Abbey
In a time before open adoptions became more common, different attitudes existed between adoptees who wanted to find their birth parents and those who did not. Adam Pertman, President of The Evan D. Donaldson Adoption Institute, believes that “some older adoptees have an aversion to talking about their desire to search, but probably not much less of a desire.”

Not my friend. To protect his privacy, I’ll call him Tim. He is open about his desire to find his birth mother. Tim, in his mid-50s, refused to give up the pursuit, which included frequent trips to Ireland and endless obstacles. He spent 14 years at it.

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Tim’s search began before the Internet was an effective search tool and years before the movie version of “Philomena” was released, but the similarities are striking: both mothers entered the Sean Ross Abbey at age 18 and gave birth there; the same nuns were still active when Tim and Philomena began their searches; the same deceptions depicted in the film were used; and both boys were adopted by American couples within a couple years of each other. Tim could have been Philomena’s son.

Because of Tim’s experiences, I know firsthand that the facts in Philomena’s search for her son, Michael Hess (and Michael’s search for his mother), and the barriers met at the Abbey are true. As Tim says, “It’s a Pandora’s box. You don’t know what you are getting into. Sister Hildegard said she would help me find my birth mother during a visit in 1989, but instead provided me with misinformation and dead leads that I believe were intended to dissuade me.” Like Philomena, he was told falsely that any identifying records would be nearly impossible to obtain.

The Nuns in the Nursery
During one of his visits to Sean Ross Abbey, Tim was offered tea by a nun while he waited in a parlor room. On the table was a photo album containing pictures apparently taken in the 1950s of the mothers and babies at Sean Ross. The nun encouraged him to view the album, so Tim decided to take snapshots of those pictures. Tim posted some of those pictures to an Irish adoption website and was later contacted by Philomena's daughter who was conducting her own search for her brother, Michael, but who his sister and mother called Anthony.

Tim never gave up. He contacted Sean Ross Abbey several times over the years to see if they had any additional information about his mother's status and if she had been looking for him as well.

Finally, through a meeting with other Irish adoptees, Tim connected with Bernadette Joyce of the AFPAI (Adopted and Fostered Person’s Association of Ireland), who was able to trace the whereabouts of his mother. Unfortunately, he discovered that she had passed away in 1990, the year after his first visit to Sean Ross Abbey. The positive outcome, however, was that he was able to connect with his two half brothers and sister and has maintained a great relationship with his found Irish family.

 “My only intention,” says Tim, “was to let my mother that I was doing well and to thank her for bringing me into this world. I never wanted to knock on her door and potentially ruin her life.”

Having been at the Abbey and now understanding his mother’s circumstances, he can accept why she had to give him up. In Catholic, rural Ireland in the 1950s, she, and other unwed young women like her, had no other options.  “Philomena,” the movie, gives these mothers dignity and opens a much-needed conversation about adoption records and rights of birth mothers and children who are adopted.

Judi Dench as Philomena
Even forgoing my personal connection to the film through Tim, “Philomena” is, at turns, moving, heartbreaking, humorous, and above all, real. Tim’s story attests to that. 

If I had a vote, my choices in two categories are clear:

Best Picture: Philomena

Best Actress: Judi Dench

Among the nominated films, which one would you vote for and why? Has “Philomena” opened up conversations about adoption for you or someone you know?


Burger King Baby’s Search: A Challenge to Adoption Practices

Why More People Don't Adopt; and My Family Is Not a Second-Best Option

Photo credit: Landmark Media (Philomena)

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Copyright @ 2014 Susan Newman

Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her latest book is The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide.


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