The Last to Know—An Australian Late Discovery Adoptee’s Story

I was born on Valentine’s Day, 1955, in Paddington, Sydney and grew up in country New South Wales, Australia, believing I was the third of four children, and the only daughter of Dutch immigrants. Despite being only five months younger than my older brother, I never suspected something was amiss.

I had considered myself a medical marvel to survive, but it was a lie, not only about me, but about my “almost” twin brother, too. My mother even managed to keep this secret from her family in Holland.

Decades later, when I was 43-years-old, I approached my mother to find out more information about my estranged late father. I needed to know more about our family’s medical history after my third child died from a congenital heart defect, and our next child was born with a disability.

My mother adamantly told me that the only thing I needed to know was that my father was bad (in phrases I won’t repeat). She refused to speak any further about him, so I arranged to meet with a beneficiary named in my father’s will to try to get more information.

Towards the end of the conversation with this woman, she mentioned my family’s secret adopted child, but she did not know which of the four of us it was. I knew the only way to find out if it had been me, was to write to the Department of Welfare.

In October 1998, I received a letter in response to my “Request for Confirmation of Adoption.” That moment is forever etched in my memory. I sat alone in my car and read a letter that challenged everything I had ever known or believed to be true about myself:

Our records indicate that you were adopted. Many people find it distressing to have their adoption confirmed, even when they have suspected it for many years. If you would like to discuss this with a counsellor, please do not hesitate to phone and ask to speak with a counsellor on duty.

I didn’t phone a counselor—I phoned the person whom I had known for forty-three years as my ‘mother.’ The fact that I’d discovered my adoption shocked her. She felt betrayed. Whereas our phone conversations had always ended with “I love you Diana,” after that day, she never assured me of her love again.

I cannot describe the physical and emotional pain I endured from her rejection. I found some consolation in finally understanding why it was that I had never felt a bond or deep love for her. Our relationship had always seemed to be based on what she needed from me— and I could never provide enough.

Despite this, I agonized over what to do with my newly found information. Should I let it go, or search for my true identity? I struggled with feeling responsible for her pain, though in time, I learned that this was a by-product of adoption.

Worse yet was learning my three brothers, and their wives, knew I was adopted 20 years before me. I was the last to know.

The next decade was dominated by my search. I learned that my birth mother had also moved to South Australia and lived only 40 kilometres away from me. Our relationship was respectfully distant, and I am thankful to her for that. She provided my family history, circumstances of my birth, and information about my father in the years before she passed away.

I learned that they’d decided to relinquish their parental rights prior to my birth and that my mother went home on the fourth day of her confinement. I, however, remained in the hospital for a month, then moved to another location for two more months before joining my adoptive family.

There were some gems to savor in her family history—she was the granddaughter of a knight of the realm in England— although her father, shell-shocked and dishonorably discharged from the army after serving in Gallipoli, was considered a disgrace to the family name, and eventually disowned.

As for my father, my mother told me that he was Greek. After they’d each heard their parents arguing about my impending birth, they decided it would not work to keep me. I went from being double Dutch to half Greek, which explains my dark hair, eyes, and propensity to break plates.

My birth father went on to become an orthopedic surgeon. After googling his name one night, I read his obituary in an orthopedic magazine. Apparently, he had been a wonderful doctor, husband, and father. I had written to him twice, shortly after I found out I was adopted, and again five years later. Now I knew why my letters were met with silence.

Since I discovered my adoption, the most difficult parts of my journey have been extricating the effects of adoption on my mind, body, and soul. I lacked the resilience to cope with what life had thrown at me, and my default position became one of despair, detachment, or avoidance.

As time unfolded, my preoccupation with looking after other people to the neglect of what I wanted and needed, led me to study social sciences and counseling. My post-graduate counseling theory studies gave me a scaffolding in which to understand the effects of my adoption experience, the profound effects of loss, grief, and the trauma of attachment disruption.

I am trying to reclaim my soul—my identity—and something equating to agency to live as an adult rather than reacting as an insecure child. There was no loving adult to comfort me after my birth. There was no secure adult to parent me, or teach me social skills, or how to cope well.

And I finally understand how the various forms of family abuse, separation trauma, on-going complex trauma, and neglect have caused me to react defensively to others. Often, I arm myself for a fight as if in a life or death situation, which is often out of proportion to the actual situation. It’s exhausting.

Seven years ago, when I was overwhelmed by the concurrent illnesses of my daughter and my two mothers, I began therapy. My therapist recognized my lack of essence, or presence, as I sat in his room reading my notes, unable to describe what I was feeling.

He has provided a safe space to cry years worth of pain, to speak and feel heard, and to be accepted despite my mistakes and weaknesses. It has been a place to learn the skills I need to live. Through this inner work of psychotherapy and hypnosis, I have met my demons and knit together some of the pieces of identity that were fragmented after my birth.

I continue to reclaim whom I am, but am left with the disquieting evidence that perhaps there is no way back from the life-long effects of my adoption. Every day I learn to settle my physiology and be gentle with others and myself.

Editor’s note: March 21, 2013 was a significant day in Australia’s adoption history. On that day, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave a moving apology on behalf of the Australian Government to people affected by forced adoption or removal policies and practices (video below). The Australian government’s “Find & Connect” website provides links and information for Australian adoptees to search for records and connect with support services.

Thanks for visiting our online community. In addition to stories like this one, you can find valuable resources, discover your rights to your original birth certificate, meet other adoptees, and join the discussion by commenting (below) or on our Facebook page.

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13 Responses to “The Last to Know—An Australian Late Discovery Adoptee’s Story”

  1. […] Taylor Perry’s reflection on shattered fantasies post reunion, Australian late discovery adoptee, Di Dunning’s story, which showed that the pain of secrets long kept have no geographic boundaries, and Karen […]

  2. Beth Kozan says:

    Thank you for including the Australian apology. It is very moving, as is your story.

    • Di says:

      Hi Beth,
      Thank you. We are making slow progress here in Australia towards recognising and addressing the needs of Adoptees, and to translate these into practical support.
      Take care

  3. Alex M says:

    Thanks Di for sharing your story. I too am a late discovery adoptee, having found at 37 (now 42). Thank you, it makes me feel not so alone.

    • Di says:

      Hi Alex,
      Thank you. By telling my story and reading the responses of others like yourself, I have gained a sense of common experience with Late Discovery Adoptees. It sounds like our experience is quite different to those of Adoptees because of the effects of secrecy.
      Take care

  4. Hi Di, Thank you so much for sharing your story. I, too, resonated with the part about your relationship being based on what your mother needed from you. I have many memories of my adoptive mother at crucial times in my life when she was either not there when I desperately needed a mother, or she was there and made the whole event about her. I never felt like our relationship was about me and what I needed. I realize that not all adoptive parents are like that, but I think that adopting a child so that you can be a parent inherently makes the relationship largely about your needs, not the child. Because let’s face it, what the child needs most is their mother, their real mother. I often think, if you really wanted to do what was best for the child, you would take all the money and resources you would have spent on your adopted child and given it to the birth mother so she could provide for the child, and so they could stay together. When I suggest that to people, they look at me like I’m crazy. “Why would anybody do that? Then they wouldn’t’ have a baby.” I rest my case.
    It’s funny, I also ended up in a helping profession. I am a social worker and I sometimes think it’s because I spent so much time taking care of people (My adoptive mother in particular) that it just felt natural, like that is why I am here, to take care of others needs.
    I am sorry to go on and on. It’s wonderful to connect with you here. Thank you again for sharing. You are not alone. Thanks to groups like this, none of us are anymore.

    Warmly, Karen

    • Di says:

      Hi Karen,
      Thank you for your response. I so agree, there are such fine nuances that babies and children pick up especially if their very existence in the family is for the happiness, mother-hood status of the adopting mother. I agree also with your logic that if adoption is truly in the best interests of the child, as many say, then why aren’t people supporting the child to stay with their mother – one of many inconsistencies that we can still challenge by being blunt and honest.
      I think a current morph of pro-adoption logic, is the abortion-adoption debate where those that are anti-abortion (and I am not pro-abortion) are advocating adoption as the win-win-win for everyone. Adoptees are saying it is not – perhaps the only winners are those who have a baby as an end result.
      Take care

  5. Dear Di I resonated so much with your story and emotions. Beautifully written words that convey the inner struggle to find oneself in the midst of great losses, grief and betrayal. Continue your self caring and personal growth. My journey has been similar, yet we all carry our wounds of difference , yet share so many similarities. I have added a link to my memoir, if you are interested.

    Take gentle care, Marg

    • Di Dunning says:

      Thanks Margaret. The similarities validate my experience. So little known about and accepted on the effects of adoption. We are writing the texts 🙂
      Kind regards

  6. Darlene says:

    Dear Di, Thanks for writing your story. Your line about your mother always needing from you— but you could never give enough— was a perfect way to describe my relationship. I always resented that my mother seemed to expect from me what all four of her sister’s children gave her. Wish we had counselors and support here in the US like you have in Australia; even though nothing can remove the hurt of being lied to for decades. Wishing you well.


    • Di says:

      Hi Darlene,
      Thank you for your perspective. There is still much to understand about the attachment process in adoption, and the life-long effects on Adoptees’ relationships. My counsellor is a rarity, often travelling overseas to learn more on counselling interventions. Australian Adoptees are waiting for the Apology to be translated into affordable mental health support that understand the needs of Adoptees to include loss, grief, trauma and attachment disruption as well as depression and anxiety. I hope that this can aid the healing of Adoptees rather than maintain the status quo for organisations that will apply for funding.
      Take care

  7. Kim Coull says:

    Dear Di,

    I was so very moved by your story on so many levels. Thank you so much for sharing it. I relate to it so much…I too am an Australian Late Discovery Adoptee. I found out at 42. It’s a privilege to meet you and know about you…all the very best…

    • Di says:

      Hi Kim,
      Thank you. When I read my story, it still feels unreal. I hope that sharing with others like you, and reading their stories, will somehow allow the reality to sink in.
      Take care