'At 42, I Learned Why My Mother Gave Me up for Adoption'

I grew up knowing I was adopted from Ireland but I still wasn't prepared for how I would feel when I finally saw my birth certificate in my early thirties.

Seeing my mother's name was very meaningful to me, to know she was a real person. It put things in perspective, that I wasn't just the product of the couple in Philadelphia who had raised me. There was another woman out there, who had given birth to me in Ireland in 1960.

I was able to access my birth certificate through a Freedom of Information request in the States. But the new Birth Information and Tracing Act, which comes into effect in October, 2022, will mean all people born in Ireland and adopted at home or abroad will now have unrestricted access to their birth certificates and records.

A lot of people will now have the right to information that they never had before, although it will be up to them whether they take it to the next level and make contact with their birth parents. That's the decision I made in the '80s, when I tracked down my own birth mother.

An "idyllic" childhood

I was born in Bessborough mother and baby home in Ireland, to an unmarried 26-year-old woman, and adopted by a couple in Philadelphia when I was 18 months old. I was one of more than 2,000 children who were born in Ireland and adopted in the States.

Mari Steed with Adoptive Parents
Mari Steed with her adoptive parents in Philadelphia. Steed says her childhood was "idyllic" but she felt she didn't fit in.

It wasn't a secret that I was adopted. I'm glad my parents were open about it because it took away the heartbreak of finding out later down the line.

In many ways, I had an idyllic childhood in Philadelphia. My father owned a plumbing and heating business, so we were comfortably well-off. My brother—who was separately adopted from Bessborough—and I were sent to good schools and we were encouraged to take up sports and music lessons.

It was an opportunity that my own birth mother could not have given me at the time. However, I see adoption not as a guarantee of a better life, but a different life. A lot of us ended up in very wealthy houses but very unhappy, dysfunctional and toxic families. Money doesn't guarantee everything.

I adored my adoptive father, but my mother and I were like oil and water. We both had progressive political views, but we clashed on a lot of other subjects. I don't think she truly wanted to be a mother, it was just the done thing at the time, so that added fuel to our personal fire.

I also felt that I didn't fit in, as I didn't look like anyone in my family. My adoptive mother had very fair skin and red hair. My brother was blond-haired and blue-eyed, so people said he looked like my father. But I had dark features. It felt unsettling to me—like I was a square peg not quite fitting in this round hole.

The trip that changed everything

I didn't know anything about my birth mother growing up, because my adoptive parents didn't know anything about her either. But in 1983, when I was 23 years old, my mother scheduled for us to take a trip to Ireland together. She wanted us to see Bessborough and for my brother and I to get information about our birth mothers. My adoptive parents believed we had the right to know.

I couldn't make the trip, as I'd taken a job in Florida. However, when my adoptive mother returned from Ireland, she sat me down and told me about a conversation she had had with a nun at the home. She hadn't known much about my mother, but my brother's mother had apparently been 16 years old and had put up quite a fight when they came to take her son to the U.S. She allegedly punched a nun. Forced adoptions were not uncommon at mother and baby homes.

Bessborough Mother and Baby Home
Bessborough mother and baby home. Mari Steed's mother gave birth to her in this home, and then gave her up for adoption.

That was important for my brother to know, as he had grown up thinking he had been abandoned. It was an eye-opening experience for my adoptive mother, and she was in tears. It affected me, too, as I felt I now needed to know about my own mother. It lit the fire under my search.

The search for my mother

It was the '80s, so this was pre-internet. I reached out to adoptee rights groups I'd read about in the newspaper, but they didn't have access to records in Ireland. It wasn't until the early '90s when I connected with people online in Ireland. They pointed me in the right direction.

I did a Freedom of Information request in the States to get my full immigration file and birth certificate. Then I started a website. A woman based in London, Judy, reached out. She had a robust interest in genealogy and she helped me search for my mother for a number of years, first searching Irish records before we switched our focus to the U.K.

We found a woman who matched my mother's month and day of birth, but the year was seven years out. Judy checked electoral registers and found out where this woman lived. She also found an Irish fellow who used to rent to her, who still saw her regularly. He agreed to reach out on our behalf.

We knew this woman had remarried and that was my big concern. If there's a husband or other children in the mix, a woman might prefer to keep an adoption secret. I was going to be respectful and back away if that was the case. But this fellow approached her husband one day and said, "Oh, by the way, somebody in the U.S. is looking for Josie."

Her husband flat-out said to him, "That has to be the child she gave up in Ireland." That was our foot in the door.

I called the woman and, from the minute I heard her voice, I knew it was my mother. So at 42 years of age, I finally spoke to my mother for the first time.

Learning my mother's backstory

That first phone call was incredible in the sense that it was so easy. There was no awkwardness, it was like we had been talking on the phone on a regular basis my whole life. She told me that she had missed me every day, and that she had been waiting and hoping for this phone call. She was over the moon.

I later discovered that she had been raised by nuns in institutional care, as her own mother had given birth in a mother and baby home. She had gone to an industrial school and then worked in a Magdalene Laundry in Cork until finally, at the age of 26, she was sent to do a job in Dublin.

That had been her first time out in the open world, and that was where she met my father. If you've grown up with no family, nobody's ever really given you love and affection, yeah, you're going to take it from the first handsome guy that sweeps you onto the dancefloor. I don't begrudge her that one bit.

When she fell pregnant with me, she begged the nuns to send me to the U.S. instead of an industrial school in Ireland, because she was afraid that I would "end up like her."

I think she felt she had no choice but to give me up. I understand what she went through because I went through a similar situation when I fell pregnant at 17. My parents sent me to a maternity home and my adoptive mother told me, "If you come home with that baby, you're not coming into our home."

At the time, I didn't know there were things like state support for women, or infant aid. So I, too, gave up my daughter for adoption. We later reunited in 1997, and now have a close relationship.

If it's not an informed decision, if you don't know your options, I believe that's the definition of forced adoption. You can't make a logical decision in the best interests of your child if you don't know all the options available to you.

My relationship with my mother

I first met my mother in person in 2002. We nearly caused a traffic accident outside Heathrow Airport as we fell into each other's arms. She was super excited about my kids, two of whom I'd brought with me, because she hadn't had any more children after me.

Mari Steed and her Mother
Mari Steed and her birth mother, Josie, in 2010. The pair were reunited in 2002 and remained close until Josie passed away in 2013.

Our relationship felt so much more natural than what I had experienced with my adoptive mother. We could pick up and finish each other's sentences, and I looked like her, almost like her twin. That made a world of difference because I felt I was looking at my people, at where I came from.

My adoptive mother never had any issue with me tracing my birth mother and finding her. She even met her and there was a lot of waterworks and hugging. I'm glad they got to meet before they both passed away. I was by my birth mother's side when she passed in 2013.

I think the public in Ireland has finally come to grips with its history of mother and baby homes, but it has been a long process.

I've observed the shift in opinions through cab rides. In 2002, when my birth mother and I told a cab driver about our story, he responded: "I think it's a beautiful thing, but just be careful. Don't talk too openly about it."

Now, 20 years later, when I'm over there and I talk about my work campaigning for people who were adopted abroad or sent to Magdalene Laundries, people say: "It's about damn time that came out in the open."

Mari Steed is the U.S. coordinator of the Adoption Rights Alliance, an advocacy group based in Ireland. She is also a writer, and has contributed to the books Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign for Justice, and Redress.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Katie Russell.