Kate Hilpern: Desperate to find the parents who gave her up

Kate's adoptive family scrimped to give her idyllic childhood… yet she was still desperate to find the parents who gave her up – no matter who it hurt

Kate Hilpern


22:48 GMT, 15 May 2012



22:48 GMT, 15 May 2012

Searching: Kate was determined to find her biological family

Searching: Kate was determined to find her biological family

When I was 18, I changed my name. Crucially, I gave myself a new middle name — Justine. Actually, it wasn’t new at all. It was the name my birth mother gave me before I was adopted.

I can still remember the horror my teenage self felt when I saw my birth certificate and realised that not only had I lost my birth family, but I’d lost my name, too — the one thing my mother had been able to give me. So I approached a local solicitor and changed it by deed poll.

I desperately wish I’d known more about my birth family when I was growing up in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire.

My adoptive parents, Brian and Lucy, told me all they knew — that my birth mother had been 17 when I was born in 1970 and she was called Susan. I also knew she had a brother who was a composer, but there the information stopped.

So my roots remained a question mark during my formative years, leaving an emotional void that had a profound effect on me. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a happy family.

My father worked hard as an accountant and my mother as a carer so we could live in an Edwardian house and go on nice holidays. They were keen for me and my brother — who is three years older than me and also adopted — to go to private school, so they scrimped and saved for that, too.

They were loving and affectionate and we had lots of fun. I was an excitable and imaginative child and have many fond memories of playing in our garden and bustling family Christmases.

In fact, when I learned I was adopted, around the age of five, it was a non-issue. My parents told me they had chosen me and I was special because of it and I accepted this without question. But as the years went on, I began to feel a niggling sense of loss.

Somewhere out there was another set of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — my flesh and blood — and I didn’t even know them.

It wasn’t just the big questions such as ‘Why was I adopted’ that I wanted answers to, but the smaller ones, too — from where did I get my blue eyes, long face and curly hair

I don’t look anything like my parents — Mum has a rounder face and lighter hair than me, while my father had ginger hair. I wondered what I’d have in common with my biological parents — does my birth mother hate peas, like me And who was my birth father

The older I got, the more I ached to know the answers to these questions and by the time I reached my teenage years, my self-esteem and confidence were affected. Like all teenagers, I was trying to work out who I was — but unlike most teenagers, I didn’t even know where I came from.

I didn’t want to upset my parents by talking about it, so I bottled it up. I became rebellious, drinking too much and refusing to come home from parties, as I desperately tried to make sense of my identity.

This was not the fault of my adoptive parents, of course, merely a reflection of the adoption system in the Seventies, a time when all ties were severed with an adopted child’s birth family.

It is this era that Kate Gallagher seemed to hark back to in her recent article for the Mail, in which she condemned current practices that encourage adopted children to stay in touch with their birth families by keeping their birth names and sending letters to their biological parents.

Special: Kate on her wedding day with birth father Mark (left) and Brian

Special: Kate on her wedding day with birth father Mark (left) and Brian

Adopted children’s links with their birth families should be cut with a firm snip, she argued, and adopting parents should know as little as possible about the background of the child they will be raising.

I can tell her with total certainty that she is utterly wrong. The idea that you can uproot a baby from its birth family, place it with adoptive parents and give it a new identity with no ill-effects is ludicrous — a fact borne out by my own experiences.

No, it's not that I wish I hadn’t been adopted. I love the people who happened to be at the top of the waiting list when I turned up on the baby conveyor belt.

I miss my adoptive dad, who died three years ago, very much and Mum and I are extremely close, choosing to live just a few doors from each other. There’s no question that she’s my Mum and Granny to my two children.

But growing up I felt blighted by the fact I knew nothing about my natural parents. So, like two-thirds of adopted people, I decided to trace my birth parents when I turned 18 and was entitled to apply for my original birth certificate.

The certificate had the address of my birth mother at the time of my birth — which, as luck would have it, was where her parents still lived.

While some people use charities such as Norcap, which helps adults affected by adoption, to assist them in making the first approach to their biological family, I asked my best friend’s mum, who was a counsellor, to help.

She phoned my grandfather, who told her my birth mother had died aged 19. She’d gone travelling to India to get over the heartache of giving me up, a heartache that, like so many birth mothers, she had under- estimated. There, she found herself in a dodgy area and was killed.

Spitting image: Kates mother

Kate Hilpern

Spitting image: Kate, right, shares many identical features with her mother, pictured, left, when a teenager

The details are vague, but her postmortem examination revealed it was poisoning. I travelled to India in 1999 to try to find out more about how she died, but discovered nothing conclusive.

They say you can’t miss what you’ve never known, but I certainly grieved for the birth mother I’d never met. I would love to have just one single memory of her.

Happily, the rest of my biological family could not have been more welcoming. My grand-father said he’d been waiting for my call for 18 years and invited me to his home two days later.

So, on a wet Sunday in February 1989, three months after my 18th birthday, I found myself walking nervously up my grandparents’ driveway.

Any fears I had dissipated almost immediately on meeting them. They hugged me and said they had been looking forward to this moment ever since my mother died. Their background was not dissimilar to my own adopted family’s and we hit it off immediately, chatting for hours.

My visit was clearly emotional for them. I was the spitting image of their beloved dead daughter.
At one point, my grandfather had to walk out of the room. He returned with tears in his eyes, explaining that it had totally thrown him that my mannerisms — the way I moved my hands when I spoke, the way I stood and so on — were so similar to my mother’s.

For me, it was incredible to finally see people that I looked like and I couldn’t get enough of the family photos and stories.

My grandparents explained that my mother had given me up because she couldn’t cope with the stigma attached to being an unmarried mother, and that without state benefits for single mums, she had no idea how she’d provide for me.

Loving: With adoptive mother Lucy at their Hertfordshire home

Loving: With adoptive mother Lucy at their Hertfordshire home

It was decided that she’d go to a mother and baby home in Northampton to give birth, and that everyone — even her siblings — would be told that she was simply on a long holiday visiting cousins. My aunts and uncles didn’t find out about my existence until my mother died.

Two days later, I met my biological father, Mark, at his flat in London. Again, the meeting was emotional, but it was easy to bond with him and we talked until the early hours. He clearly adored my mother and still displayed a framed photograph of her, a fact I found heartening.

He had stayed in touch with my grandparents and, together, my birth family helped put together a picture of my mother’s short life — her love of books and drama, her interest in music, what made her laugh.

I was able to answer so many of the questions that had tormented me during my childhood. I still marvel at how similar my character is to that of some of my biological family — I am impatient like my father and talk incredibly quickly, just like his mother and sister — not to mention the sense of belonging I feel.

Reunions are risky and do not work out for everyone, but in my case, meeting my birth family made me feel complete. Yet it was not without problems. Sadly, my adoptive parents did not support my decision to meet my birth family.

They felt hurt and threatened. My adoptive father made it clear he wanted me to have nothing to do with them. They felt it was a slap in the face after all they’d done for me.

I tried to persuade them that needing to know where I came from was no reflection on their parenting, and that they were still my family. But it was no good and for some time, our relationship was fraught and bruised.

Then, in 2005, I got married and everything changed. By this time, both families were an important part of my life — and I invited them all to my big day. It was a risky decision, but it turned out to be one of my best. After speaking in private for ten minutes, both of my fathers decided to walk me down the aisle together and later made a joint speech.

One of my most prized possessions is a framed photo of the three of us arm in arm. I don’t know what passed between them, but I believe that my adoptive dad saw in front of him a man who was not a threat to him in any way.

In his head, he had spent years thinking my birth father was attempting to take his place — but on meeting him, he realised this wasn’t the case at all. From that moment on, they remained in touch, even visiting me jointly.

Before my adoptive father died, my two children called him Grandad and my biological father Grandpa Mark. They simply accepted I have two families. This acceptance is key to successful adoptions.

Like it or not, a child’s biological family is part of who the adopted person is and attempts to deny this — such as refusing contact with the birth parents or changing the name they’ve had since birth — are misguided, unless there is a good reason for it.

The fact is that the more adopters know about the child’s background and the more the child feels some connection with their past, the less likely the adoption is to break down. Given that an estimated one in five adoptions fail, this could not be more vital.

I feel so strongly about this I’ve spent ten years on an adoption panel, approving prospective adopters and matching them with children who need loving homes.

The idea of other children growing up tormented by unanswered questions about their past, just like I was, fills me with dread.

I am happy knowing how nature and nurture have played a part in making me who I am — and I’m determined that other adopted children should know a similar peace and contentment.