LOOKING down at her baby son on the day of his Christening, 16-year-old Michelle Pearson’s face beamed with pride and love.
But it’s one of a few childhood photos she has of her baby. On Valentine’s Day 1972, just four weeks after he was born, the boy she named Timothy Peter was cruelly taken from her at a mother and baby home and given up for adoption.
Michelle, now 67, is one of an estimated 180,000 women in the UK who were forced to give up their babies for adoption from the 1950s to 1970s, when being an unmarried mum carried a huge social stigma.
Michelle, from Hampshire, says the trauma of having her baby taken away has affected every part of her life and she still lives with PTSD today.
Despite being reunited with her son when he was 28, she explains they then had to overcome the cruel twist of being complete strangers to each other – which led to her missing his wedding.
“Everybody concentrates on the time of the adoption and how traumatic that was but you live with it for the rest of your life,” she tells The Sun.
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“As well as the loss of my baby, all those precious moments of mother and child growing up were also taken from me – his first words, his first steps, his first day at school, being able to hug him when he needed a cuddle, kissing his childhood bumps and bruises better, and being able to watch and guide my son as he navigated his teenage years and became an adult.
“These precious moments and all the other wonderful moments between a mother and child growing up together are gone forever.”
This month, after the Joint Commission on Human Rights (JCHR) published a damning report on the widespread practice of forced adoption, the Government acknowledged the “shame and secrecy” the women were forced to endure.
They admitted the “practice was wrong,” adding that they “recognise that unmarried women were punished for being pregnant by those who should have helped them".
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Michelle, who wrote about her experiences in the recently published book Taken, says the statement falls short of the official apology sufferers have been calling for for decades.
“The Government response says sorry 15 times, yet there is no formal apology,” she says.
“It uses phrases like, ‘We are sorry on behalf of society for what happened’ and then go on to say that it was down to local authorities and Mother and Baby Homes run by religious organisations.
"They're suggesting that the state had nothing to do with it but surely such a widespread practice could not have been implemented without government policy being behind it.”
Michelle was just 15, and living in Bath, when she fell pregnant to boyfriend Tim in 1971.
“My parents’ reaction was ‘you're not bringing a baby back here. You made your bed, go lie in it’,” she says.
“My school, Bath Convent School, arranged for me to go to a mother and baby Home in Wales. It had to be far enough that I couldn't be seen by anybody so I was banished to Chepstow.”
Her memory of her time in the home is hazy – a condition called disassociated amnesia means she blocks the traumatic memories from her mind – but she remembers the day she was forced to say goodbye to her son.
“I remember standing over the crib, and the sunlight streaming into the room,” she says. “I was looking down at my tiny, beautiful son, absolutely distraught, and thinking, ‘This is the last time I'm ever going to see you.’
“There was deep anguish that made me want to scream out loud.
My cries of anguish were deep within me because I knew I was supposed to keep quiet
“What really stands out in my mind was a younger girl who had left previously, screaming as she was dragged out the front door.
“As my son and I parted, I felt the same, but my cries of anguish were deep within me because I knew I was supposed to keep quiet.
“Then I had to go home and act as if nothing had happened. My baby was never mentioned in my family again.”
“I was not allowed to show any grief, not allowed to acknowledge that I'd had a child. I was in complete despair.”
'Everyone wore me down'
Tim was adopted by a married couple and the decision was “dressed up” by the authorities as a choice on Michelle’s part – but she said they drummed into her that she was an unfit mother.
“You were led to believe that it was your choice and that's one of the things that I have struggled with,” she says.
“But ‘choice’ was an illusion. For example, every time I asked for information on help with accommodation, they would say they’d get back to me and never did.
“Less than a fortnight after my son was born I told them I didn’t know if I could bear being parted from him, and that I'd like time to think about it. That same day, they got me to sign the first bit of paperwork saying that I consented to the adoption.
“Everyone wore me down. They only ever had one agenda – adoption.”
'Low moral standard'
While she tragically has no recollection of holding and feeding her child, other than the photo of the Christening, Michelle eventually fought to see her files from the home and says one sentence – which the authorities tried to redact – speaks volumes.
“The sentence said how attached I was to “the baby” but added that that we had to remember that she is of “low moral standard.’”
After she returned home, she broke up with Tim's father, although the pair remained in touch in the hope their son would one day come looking for them.
She went on to a career in computing and, in her early 30s, she married husband Stephen, although the pair have never had children together.
“I couldn’t give myself permission to have another child after what I’d done,” she says. “It would have felt like a betrayal. After my reunion [with Tim], I fell pregnant, but sadly I had a miscarriage.”
The trauma of losing Tim left Michelle with anxiety, PTSD, memory loss and agoraphobia and not a day went by that she didn’t yearn to be with him.
But 28 years after that heart-wrenching Valentine’s Day parting, a letter from her son dropped onto her doormat – he had tracked her down and wanted to meet.
Initially reunited in a private room at Jane Austen house, in Chawton, Hampshire, the pair talked for two hours and got on like a house on fire.
But Michelle admits meeting her son – now called John – as a fully grown adult, was a rollercoaster of emotions for both of them.
“It is not normal for a mother and son to have no shared history. We're creating our own shared history now but when we met all we had was four weeks together and then a 28-year gap,” she says.
“I had to ask my son, how do you take your tea? Do you take sugar? What do you like to eat? How many mothers have to ask their 28-year-old son those sorts of questions?”
The situation was complicated by the fact that he was keen to keep their new relationship from his adoptive parents, who have now sadly passed away.
She says: “I have a lot of respect for them and I am grateful they kept the names I gave him, Timothy Peter, as his middle names which was a lovely thing to do. But I saw how the anguish that my son went through trying to compartmentalise us.”
Joy at grandchild
Because of the secrecy, Michelle was unable to attend John’s wedding to wife Liz.
However, she was able to hold her baby granddaughter just hours after she was born, in a poignant echo of her favourite Christening photo with her son.
“It was wonderful but I was also worried that if they had a boy and I held him, I might be projected back to the day I held my son," she says.
“But the minute I held her, she was my grandchild and just a wonderful part of my life.”
The family are closer than ever today and Michelle says people have commented on how similar she and John are, sharing mannerisms like the way they walk and talk, the things that faze them and the things they enjoy.
“That has shocked both of us,” she says. “There's a sense of connectedness between us that is mother and son. He's part of me.
“I would love to be viewed as his mum, one of two, but I think that is too much to expect.
“I accept this is one of the consequences I have to deal with of him growing up in the care of his other mother, who he understandably sees as his mum, but this is still very hard to handle at times.
“I think I would have been a great mum to John, growing up, if I’d had the chance.”
Reacting to the Government’s response to the report into forced adoption, the campaign group The Movement for an Adoption Apology (MAA), said it “immensely grateful to the Joint Committee for Human Rights, for all the work they have undertaken to explore the complex issues around adoption loss for first families and the issues affecting adult adoptees who, as infants, were transplanted without the opportunity for consultation, consent or consideration.”
But they added: “We are all extremely angry and disappointed at the government’s lacklustre response and their denial of the need for an apology, especially as it has been proven that the state underpinned all such adoption policies.”
The government response states that changes in legislation mean the “practices of the past will not now occur” adding that it is now clear that “where possible, children should remain with birth parents or the wider family unit, and “single parents are now supported.”
However Michelle points to a recent video from the Post Adoption Centre, entitled The Forgotten Voices of Birth Families, which she believes shows potential adopters are given more support than birth parents.
One mother says: “They give adoptive parents training that’s vital for them to be adopters – well why can’t they give that to us? Because they’re just training them to become parents aren’t they?”
Michelle says she is lucky to have support from husband Stephen and John’s wife, as well as his adoptive sisters and all her friends because"many mothers and adoptees do not have this support. Quite the opposite in many cases.”
Despite her joy at having her son – and his family – back in her life, Michelle says the pain of losing him at 16 is still there, 50 years on.
“I get angry when people tell me ‘It's all better now you’re reunited.’ I'm very lucky, because a lot of reunions do not go well and I feel grateful because my son is very understanding, very welcoming and everything I could have hoped for.
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“But I don’t feel lucky that I went through it all in the first place – along with so many other mothers like me.”
Taken, by Michelle Pearson, is published by Mardle Books.
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