MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 27-Jun-16 16:55:46

Guest post: "I tracked down my birth mother, but didn't tell her who I was"

Phyllis Whitsell says her birth mother wasn't the 'fairy tale figure' she had imagined, but she cared for her until the day she died

Phyllis Whitsell

Nurse and author

Posted on: Mon 27-Jun-16 16:55:46

(60 comments )

Lead photo

"She died never knowing I was her daughter. I'd left it too late."

I was four years old when I was adopted from the orphanage I'd been left at as a baby. My new parents told me my birth parents had died ­but I was somehow convinced my mother was still alive.

Being part of a 'proper' family wasn’t how I had imagined it; my adoptive mother had wanted me as a 'sister' for her daughter and struggled to show me any real affection, while my sister was quickly jealous of any attention I received at home. When I finished school, I trained as a nurse, married and started a new life of my own, but I still wanted to know the truth about my birth parents. I still felt as though my own life story was unfinished.

In 1979, after some help from local authorities, my mother, Bridget, was found. She was alive and amazingly lived only three miles from me in Birmingham. Known locally as 'Tipperary Mary', she was using her middle name to avoid detection from the police. She was an eccentric character – and also an alcoholic. I was delighted to know that she really was alive, as I'd always believed, and I had expected her life to be complicated.

Isn't that why she gave me up? I wasn't shocked. I met people in all sorts of situations through my job as a nurse, and I had learned not to judge, but there was still a part of me that, despite longing to meet her, was more than a little nervous about what she might be like.

I decided that my training could be the key to me coping with such an emotional situation. My ability to switch on a professional attitude might help me to deal with whatever meeting my mother could bring. In 1981 I had my first baby, a boy. I decided that when I returned to work as a district nurse, I would (unofficially) add Bridget to my rounds, as a gentle way of getting to know her. I would be able to use my job as a reason to visit.

I wanted to tell her who I was, but I kept thinking of my little boy at home and I couldn't do it. I couldn't let Bridget disrupt my family. I couldn't let the chaos of her life into my own. She wasn't the fairy tale figure I had imagined, but she was still my mother.


The first time I knocked on her door I was sweating with anxiety and trying to keep calm. Before I had time to change my mind, there she stood. I couldn't believe it. I was staring into the face of my mother. I was determined to recognise her and searched her face for some similarity, some sign of myself. I thought I could see some likeness -­ the cheekbones perhaps, the way she tilted her chin.

Half of her face was swollen and badly bruised, and her left eye was black. Her hair was grey and smelled of stale alcohol and tobacco. She was wearing a semi­transparent, short, nylon nightdress and her fingernails were filthy.

The way she looked was a clear indication of the chaos that her life was in. I wanted to know more about her, spend more time with her, ask her questions – but there were warning bells ringing in my head. I had a young family of my own, and this woman was not in a position to just slot into a 'normal' family life.

I cleaned her up, treated her bruises, and told her I'd be back soon. As I was leaving, Bridget stroked my hair and attempted to move it from my eyes, the type of thing a mother might do. She seemed affectionate towards me. Maybe it was because I took the time to listen to her but we somehow seemed to make a connection. Maybe, somewhere deep down, she recognised me?

I wanted to tell her who I was, but I kept thinking of my little boy at home and I couldn't do it. I was glad I seemed to be important to her, though. For better or worse, at last, I had finally met my mother.

Over the next nine years, I continued to take her clean clothes, bathe her wounds and listen to her talk about the five children she had given away, including me, when I was eight months old. Alcohol completely controlled her life; she was tortured by her past. I felt no anger towards her at all. She did what she felt was best for us, and for her.

I was a mum of three, though, and I couldn't let Bridget disrupt my family. I couldn't let the chaos of her life into my own. She wasn't the fairy tale figure I had imagined, but she was still my mother.

Eventually, in 1989, knowing her health was deteriorating, I finally told her the truth. I told her that I hadn't told her earlier because I felt the time wasn't right. I knew that time was slipping away from us and that although we'd got to know each other, she still didn’t know who I truly was – or that I was OK. That she had done the right thing.

But Bridget just stared silently at me. She was in the early stages of dementia and I'd left it too late. There never would be a right moment now. I'd lost the mother I'd found, and I was devastated. I continued to see her, but her condition became worse, she became more difficult to deal with – and she died in 2003. Although I had stayed with her for as long as I could, and continued to care for her, she died never knowing I was her daughter.

Phyllis Whitsell's story is told in her book, Finding Tipperary Mary. We have one copy to give away on Twitter, find us on @MumsnetBloggers to enter before Monday July 4.

By Phyllis Whitsell

Twitter: @TheMirrorBooks

VulcanWoman Tue 28-Jun-16 12:04:42

What an inspirational and selfless person you are Phyllis.

hawaiibaby Tue 28-Jun-16 13:33:55

Welling up here. You are amazing, and I'm glad you got time with your mother, maybe on some level she did know flowers

Dozer Tue 28-Jun-16 13:44:34

I'm very sorry about your mother, but feel that to use your job to visit her but hide your identity was inappropriate use of your position as a health professional.

user1467118240 Tue 28-Jun-16 13:58:01

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hesterton Tue 28-Jun-16 14:10:09

It was a lot less clear cut then.

Now, I agree it would be sen as an abuse of your role. These things were less discussed and not embedded in law then.

VulcanWoman Tue 28-Jun-16 14:23:34

Honestly, can't some people see the humanity in the situation. That's your first thought, obsessed.

CherryPicking Tue 28-Jun-16 14:29:03

Sorry for you, but what you did could easily have been exploited by someone with malign intentions. And you didn't give her the opportunity to use you as an excuse to turn her life around. OK it might not have happened, but perhaps she deserved to know anyway.

Dozer Tue 28-Jun-16 14:30:31

I'm not sure though whether it WAS necessarily a sensible thing to do. Phyllis could have made contact withher birth motherwithout involving her DC, for example she could have visited or written without giving her own address away. She did do kind things for her birth mother, and spent time with her, but kept her birth mother in the dark.

LuciaInFurs Tue 28-Jun-16 14:55:43

I am sure she knew deep down who you were and I'm glad you had those years with her.

Mycatsabastard Tue 28-Jun-16 14:56:08

Clearly her mum had issues that could never be resolved and I think Phyllis did the right thing in keeping her away from her own family while still caring for her birth mother.

As an adopted child I know the urge to find out about our original family, to want and need to know where we have come from and why we were adopted. It's hard if you haven't been in this position to understand why we need to find out and if, like Phyllis, the situation is less than fairytale ending then it's heartbreaking.

I am pleased Phyllis gave her mum so much care when she needed it. It was selfless and brave.

WannaBe Tue 28-Jun-16 14:57:15

I think it's impossible to know how someone feels about these things if you haven't been there yourself though.

It's incredibly easy to sit on the sidelines and judge about misuse of a position or failure to tell someone the truth, but for the OP she had been given up for adoption, not just given up but left in an orphanage.

The BM was vulnerable, but for the OP she was the one who gave her up, and the one who never turned her life around whereas the OP had her own family to think of.

Back then only adoptees could find their birth parents not the other way around, and that was generally with the idea in mind that the child could set the pace as to how the relationship developed.

The OP owed this woman nothing.

EttaJ Tue 28-Jun-16 20:33:09

Wow. What an amazing lady. I'm crying just reading the article. I will definitely read the book.

yallsucksomeshit Tue 28-Jun-16 21:21:31

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yallsucksomeshit Tue 28-Jun-16 21:22:22

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Batteriesallgone Tue 28-Jun-16 21:33:14

This doesn't sit well with me and the previous posters identified it - abuse of position. I've not given a child up but it's possible (I suppose) I might have a half-sibling somewhere...the idea of them using their profession role to gain access to me and sit in judgement on me makes me feel a little queasy. Especially if I was vulnerable and needed care.

Toddlerteaplease Tue 28-Jun-16 22:34:45

I'm a nurse and it doesn't sit right with me either, I'm afraid. To use your professional role in order to get into someone's life like that is grossly unprofessional. The NMC would be quite justified in striking you off.

Italiangreyhound Tue 28-Jun-16 22:45:39

Phyllis Whitsell I think what you did was wonderful. If we are not required to give out personal information to strangers then why should we be compelled to give out such information to people we are in some way related to.

I wonder if you mother knew, or perhaps her fantasy was that you were her daughter and you really were.

We adopted a little boy (2 years ago and have a birth daughter aged 11). Your post is a reminder of the importance of treasuring our little boy, and loving him (as we do) just for himself and not in relation to our other child. I think many siblings are jealous of each other, to some degree, it's a challenge to get round that. But your blog is a reminder of the importance of loving all our children equally.

Bless you, I really think she knew you.

ClassicCoast Wed 29-Jun-16 01:12:44

I find this a touching piece and whilst it may sit a little uncomfortably alongside professional code of practices it sits very happily as a warm example of empathic humanity.

DonnaMurray1 Wed 29-Jun-16 03:53:33

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ExtraHotLatteToGo Wed 29-Jun-16 07:02:50

I think what you did was so lovely 💐 I'm sorry that you left it a bit late to tell her, but we can only ever do what's right at the time. I think I'd have done things slightly differently, I think I'd have told her who I was & taken my children to see her once they were school aged - but you can't know these things until you are in that position and I'm sure you did what was best for you & your family.

Whether she was your Mother or not, you gave a woman with serious issues a much, much, better life - cleanliness, affection, attention, care - than our 'system' would ever have given her. You gave her some quality of life - that's what counts.

There's far too much talk of 'abuse of your position' & 'inappropriate behaviour'. Things were different then. In the name of 'protection' we are being turned into a nation of people who don't dare to care. In protecting the few, we are neglecting the many. We have gone too far.

I'm glad you found your Mother & although it certainly wasn't a fairytale story, at least you now know your story x

Dozer Wed 29-Jun-16 07:46:26

I don't think it is "humane" or kind to lie: Phyllis witholding her identity was for her own reasons.

Honeyandfizz Wed 29-Jun-16 08:10:34

Batteriesallgone Tue 28-Jun-16 21:33:14
This doesn't sit well with me and the previous posters identified it - abuse of position. I've not given a child up but it's possible (I suppose) I might have a half-sibling somewhere...the idea of them using their profession role to gain access to me and sit in judgement on me makes me feel a little queasy. Especially if I was vulnerable and needed care.

I am afraid that i wholeheartedly agree with this previous post. I am sure your intentions were for the best of reasons but using your role as a nurse was deceiving this woman for your own gain and that makes me feel very uncomfortable as a fellow nurse.

ReadyPlayerOne Wed 29-Jun-16 08:38:58

OP I'm glad you found her and were able to care for her when she clearly needed someone on her side. I can also understand the need for you to keep a distance by not telling her initially who you were.

lljkk Wed 29-Jun-16 09:23:19

I have heard this story before. Still moving. flowers

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