Caitríona Palmer on the power of mother-daughter love at all odds
Of my three children, my eldest, Liam, reminds me the most of my mother. I see flashes of her in his pewter eyes, in the splatter of honeyed freckles across his nose, and in the sweet way he sometimes furrows his eleven year-old brow. He has my mother’s gentle manner too, her unassuming way. It marvels me, this biological reflection, how I can sometimes reach out towards him and almost touch her.
This familial likeness between grandmother and grandson comforts me, for my mother – who I shall call Sarah, although that is not her real name – is rarely present in my life. She and I parted ways forty-eight hours after my birth in a Dublin hospital in April 1972, victims of Ireland’s then shameful intolerance towards the unmarried mother and her child. That day bereft, and traumatized, her breasts still leaking with milk, Sarah left the hospital and tried to rebuild her life. I, bundled up in blankets in the arms of a stranger, was taken by taxi to a baby home. Within six weeks I had a brand new adoptive family, and a sanitized new name.
I grew up happy and content, fiercely loved by my parents and two older siblings. But in 1999, when I was twenty-seven years old, haunted by an internal dissonance that I could not shake, I decided I needed to know who my birth mother was. We were reunited that Christmas and developed a close attachment. But despite our happiness, there was a catch. In the intervening decades, Sarah had told no-one – not even the man she married or the children they raised – about the baby she’d had in 1972. Terrified that her husband would leave her, that her children would shun her, she asked that I cooperate in hiding my existence temporarily from her family and friends, that we have an affair.
That was sixteen years ago. Since then Sarah and I have met secretly once or twice a year, usually in the oak paneled bar of a north Dublin hotel. She never tells me what lie she promulgated to slip away from her husband and family, and I never ask. We prefer to sit in secluded corners where we are less likely to be seen. Sometimes I meet her alone, other times I bring my kids. We chat and catch up for a couple of hours before embracing and walking away.
It amazes me that I spend, on average, just three or four hours a year with the woman who gave me life and yet, despite these odds, we have built up a powerful bond. In Sarah’s presence I hardly notice our surroundings, so intent am I in drinking her in. Even now, I can close my eyes and recall the velvety softness of her cheek and the freckled outline of her hands. I know her ticks and mannerisms, like the odd noise that she makes at the back of her throat when she’s nervous or embarrassed, and the way she sometimes absentmindedly twists the rings on her left hand. If we were not constrained by the rules of the affair I would know too what gifts to spoil her with for this coming Mother’s Day: her favorite perfume, her preferred wine, a gift certificate to the restaurant in Dublin that she loves so much. I also know, because I once asked, that were she faced again with the same terrible choice that she had in April 1972, that this time she would not give me away.
Skulking in the shadows with my birth mother has taught me many things about myself; that it can be exhausting – and at times demeaning – to love someone who is not quite able to love you in the same way back. I am constantly astonished by the reserves of resilience that lie deep beneath. But it has also taught me that despite nearly three decades apart – and another sixteen years of being kept in the dark – that it is hard to keep a mother and daughter apart. Despite the pain of being kept a secret, and of having to be a child on her terms, I still love Sarah with all my heart.