In her memoir ‘An Affair With My Mother,’ Caitriona Palmer describes how for over a decade she would have clandestine meetings with her birth mother, who was too afraid to reveal her daughter’s existence.
At first, Palmer, 43, from Dublin, Ireland, went along with keeping the relationship a secret because she was so happy to finally be reunited with her mother.
Palmer, a mother-of-three, who was living abroad at the time of the reunion, told the Daily Mail: 'I was coming over to Ireland to meet her, which enhanced the furtiveness of the affair.
'It was a very exciting time, like being in the first flush of love. I think we were both in love.'
Fifteen years after their first meeting, Palmer’s birth mother, who’s name she has changed to Sarah in the book to protect her privacy, is still unwilling to bring the relationship out into the open.
Palmer remembers when she first found out she was adopted.
'I remember that moment very vividly. I can almost reach out and touch the memory,' she said.
'I always had an inkling I was special. My parents always told me that. I was officially told I was adopted on my sixth birthday.
'We were making the bed and my mother said she had something to tell me. We sat down on the bed and she reminded me it was my birthday and said she needed me to remember someone very special who was my birth mother.
'Her exact words were: "We chose you especially to come and live with us, but before you were born another mammy carried you in her tummy."
'She wanted me to remember this woman on my birthday and always pray for her. It came as a real shock to be told I was not of my parents.
'I was very intensely upset and wanted to cry, but I didn't want to hurt her feelings so I suppressed my emotions in that moment.
‘But from that day on I would say I was grieving and I felt incomplete. I felt there was a missing part of me, and it formed my identity.'
She continued to suppress her feelings as she got older.
'I was one of these immensely positive and cheerful people,' she recalled.
'I spoke about being adopted frequently and maintained that it didn't affect me.
'In my early 20s, living abroad, I felt a greater sense of loss. At 24 I started making tentative steps towards contact, but I pulled back.
'At 27 I was living in Bosnia working with an NGO exhuming mass graves. I was surrounded by dead bodies and grieving relatives. Now it seems silly but the "aha moment" occurred there.
'I am careful not to equate what I was feeling with what these families were going through, but watching them trying to find their missing relatives made me realize I had to find that missing part of my DNA and that life is incredibly short.'
In 1999, Palmer tracked down her birth mother through a Dublin-based agency.
'It allowed us to exchange letters and get to know each other,' she said.
In her book, she writes of their first meeting.
‘I can remember still, with great clarity, the terror of meeting, Sarah, for the first time – the nausea, scanning the room for a wastebasket in case my stomach failed me, the sound of her footsteps as she approached the door.
'I remember, too, the intensity of our embrace, the cloying scent of her perfume, the softness of her velvety cheek, the scratchiness of her fake fur against my face.
'My first impression was that the coat made her look cheap, nothing like the goddess who had dominated my dreams. I smiled and soothed her tears. As I held her trembling frame, I felt like the parent in the room.'
She recalled: 'I was totally numb and in shock. The bonding came later for me.'
Palmer learned that her mother was from a small town in Ireland where she was working as a teacher. Her boyfriend offered no support when she became pregnant. At the time, there was still a huge stigma surrounding unmarried mothers. Sarah gave up her job and fled to Dublin where a Catholic agency put her up in the home of a young married couple. Caitriona was born in April 1972, and two days later, she was given to a baby home in Dublin.
Sarah returned home and never told anyone, not even the man she would marry or their children, about the child she gave up for adoption.
'For Sarah, the secret was now so toxic, so enormous and all-encompassing that revealing it threatened to destroy her world.
Palmer said her birth mother was terrified that her husband would desert her and that their children would shun her.
‘At our second meeting, she asked that I co-operate in hiding my existence – temporarily – from her family. I was eager to please and afraid of losing Sarah, so I agreed.'
Palmer had imagined a different scenario.
'I imagined a whole family grieving my loss and a reunion with aunts and uncles and everyone celebrating my return.
'I imagined two worst case scenarios – that she was dead or that she wouldn't want to meet me. I never considered that she had kept me a secret.
Palmer traveled home two or three times a year to see her mother; they communicated through letters in the meantime.
'We would meet at the Westbury [Hotel], in the center of Dublin. In previous years, for a birthday treat, I had taken my adopted mother to the hotel for afternoon tea.
'Now, in what felt like an act of treachery, I began arranging assignations there with my other mother. It felt like I was having an affair.
'It may seem peculiar or creepy to compare my relationship with my birth mother to an extramarital affair, but it is the only analogy that works. In my mind, Sarah was the married lover, I was her compliant mistress.
'She was very clear what the rules were. I could not call her at home. I didn't even have her address. I relied on a social worker to pass the letters on to her.
'She would call me from a pay phone and I could hear the traffic outside and the coins dropping in.'
'Everyone on my side knew about her. Everyone thought it was the most unusual thing they had ever heard.
Palmer said she started to feel angry, but she kept her feelings hidden from her mother
'Primarily, I did not want to lose her. And it's not in my nature to be demanding or confrontational. I've never been good at standing up for myself.
'So I was massively deferential to her and kept assuring her it was not a problem. But my patience started to run out when I had children.
'If I was not good enough to be brought out into the open then surely they would dilute the secret. But that did not happen.'
Palmer advised her mother to see a therapist to deal with the issues that were preventing her from acknowledging her daughter.
The briefly cut off contact for a while, but then Sarah experienced a family crisis and Palmer wanted to support her so they resumed the relationship.
Palmer said she wanted another way to keep in touch, so Sarah agreed they could exchange emails and text.
When she asked her permission to write the book, Sarah agreed as long as she wasn't identified.
'After I got the book deal she was very supportive and we kept texting. But the last time I heard from her was Christmas 2014.
'I've been sending texts since then, but she doesn't reply. We never had an argument, but I think it's terribly difficult for her.
'I don't think her silence is malicious. I just think she is terrified. It makes this part of telling the story terribly difficult. I don't want to hurt her. I see the book as a love letter to her.
'I believe in love and compassion. My dad read my book and wrote me an email how proud they were and how compassionate it was.'
Palmer believes Sarah’s fear is a result of the way unmarried mothers were treated in Ireland and the shame and stigma surrounding it.
'They were punished for falling pregnant outside of marriage. I believe her actions are a result. Even now, she fears she will lose everything.’
Palmer still has hopes that one day she will be reunited with her mother and that she will no longer be a secret.
'I always hope for that,' she revealed. 'I believe in maternal love and the bottomless depths. I remain optimistic, but I have to move forward with my life.
'I needed to get this story down on paper. I've never felt a compulsion like it. Now I've done it I hope I can move forward and be the best mother I can be and hope she comes around.
* Originally published in March 2016.