Della MacLeod-Jenkins was raped at the age of 17 and she refused to have an abortion. Here, she shares the painful story of her baby’s birth and forced adoption – as given at the recent Emily’s Voice fundraising dinners in Toowoomba and the Sunshine Coast.
I’d always associated babies with love and marriage.
At the age of 17, while I was beaten and raped I never thought of love or babies.
When the doctor said I was pregnant I told him that there was no way I could possibly be having a baby. He asked me why I thought it was impossible and I said that I was not married so therefore did not want a baby.
When the truth sunk in I was absolutely stunned. I thought my whole world had or would end. I could not breathe and collapsed in the surgery. The doctor suggested that the best thing would be for me to have an operation to get rid of the baby.
I walked back to the boarding house I lived in and fell on my bed, sobbing my heart out. It did not take long for the other girls in the boarding house to suss out what was happening. Everyone told me that I had to get rid of it. I had never even heard of the word abortion before then.
The horrifying thought of taking a life repulsed me to my core. Even though my life was hellish I still had a lifelong, deep-seated belief that no one but God could take a life.
It took a few weeks for the doctor to realise I was adamant and would not get rid of the baby. I had no idea what I would do though. The doctor suggested that I would have to face my parents and I thought that I could not do that, as it would be the hardest thing ever to do.
My parents were finally told and surprisingly, I lived beyond the ordeal. Head still on my shoulders and arms and legs still attached. Although their disappointment was very tangible.
I made it clear that I would not budge in my choice. After they finally accepted my decision, mum and the doctor got their heads together and the doctor arranged for me to go down to Sydney to a home for unmarried mothers-to-be. It would keep me from showing my shame and bringing embarrassment to my family.
I went to Sydney and settled into the home with all the other unmarried girls. We came from all around the state and most were from good families. The parents had told their friends that the girls were travelling overseas on holidays and they even got the girls to write postcards which were then sent over to other young people travelling, to be sent back to family and friends. My story was that I had a job in Sydney and could not get home.
I do know that my brothers had no idea whatsoever that I was pregnant.
Even amongst others in the same situation we still carried the stigma of shame as a mantle over us. Whenever we left the home and moved around the area in Sydney people stared at us and talked behind their hands about us. It was almost as though we had a big sign over our heads showing the world our shame.
The birth of my baby should have been the happiest night of my life, but instead it turned into a nightmare.
I was led down a long corridor and placed in a theatre-like room and then a sheet was placed in front of me, blocking my vision of anything below my waist. I was led through the birth and then heard the baby cry.
And then silence.
I lay there for what seemed to be ages and there was no one else in the cold sterile room. I ended up screaming and about an hour later a frazzled nurse came in, apologising for not being there earlier. She cleaned me up then led me back upstairs to a single room. I was assuming my baby would be brought into me, but no one would make eye contact with me, nor even mention the baby. Finally a very stern matron came in and told me that I was not fit to be a mother and my child was going to be given to a loving, caring family who deserved her more than I did. At that moment I knew that my heart had been totally ripped apart and would never be the same again.
Day after day I would be subjected to verbal barrage of being told I was a disgrace to God and how bad I was and how I had ruined my life and no decent person would ever want to be around me ever again. I felt lower than dirt and just wanted to die. But I could not do that. I had to live to get my baby back. She was mine and they had no right to just give her to someone else.
I even had meals whipped away from me when I refused to sign the adoption papers. They wore me down at the last minute and that was done with subterfuge. I was given a lot of papers to sign saying that I would leave the hospital/home at a certain time and my benefits would then be forwarded to me to tide me over until I could get a job and try to make a decent life for myself.
They had placed the adoption papers in the middle of the pile and I signed without realising what I had done. The next morning I walked out the door with a small suitcase and a broken heart and empty arms.
Every day of my life from then was painful. Every baby I saw I wondered if she was mine. Every age she was I wondered if she was happy, was she walking, talking, then going to school. Did she have friends? Did the other people love her like I would have?
I still lived for the day that I would meet her. I have no idea what it would be like for a mother who had aborted her baby, as it would be final with no chance of meeting the baby any day. That pain would be even more intense than mine.
I married in 1980 and in 1982 I gave birth to my son Russell. The joy of holding him in my arms was overwhelming. The instant love I felt for him as he looked me right in my eyes. I knew love in its purest form of humanity.
Unfortunately, it was mingled with the loss of my daughter and her loss was made even more tangible. My son’s birth made me more determined to search for my daughter who would have been 16 then. Over the next two years I searched in earnest and joined a group called Jigsaw, but was told I would have no luck if she did not also become a member and search for me.
Two years later on a Sunday morning I was out on the property that we lived on. My husband was away and there was just our son and I there. I got a phone call over in the main house and it was from one of my brothers. The first thing he said was, “Did you ever have another baby?” Time stopped for a second or two. I knew that, for him to ask he must have had a good reason, so I said yes.
He told me that he was reading the Sunday paper and in a section called Ask Father Maddigan there was a person searching for her natural birth mother, by the name of Della from the Dubbo area in NSW. I put Russ in the car and drove into town to get the paper. I could not believe it. It had to be my daughter wanting to meet me. Oh no! Could this be real? Surely no one would be cruel enough to deliberately try to trick me.
I rushed home and phoned the number listed. It took me a while to get through and I left my details. I was not given any information but had to give my details and was told they would pass them on and then I would have to wait and hear if she wished to take it any further. All these years of hope were paying off.
The next few days were almost unbearable. I could not sit still, or stand still or even concentrate. My son must have thought his mother was losing the plot. The phone call finally came on Tuesday. A shy, timid voice.
“Hello Della, I think I am your daughter.”
Then we both started crying and crying. No words, just tears from the depth of the soul. It took a few calls to get enough information swapped. She learnt she had an uncle in Wollongong not far from her. I arranged for them to meet and my brother then arranged to bring her up to Dubbo and I would drive over there and we would meet at my mother’s place.
The two and a half hour drive over was full of what-ifs. What if she does not like me, what if this, what if that? When I arrived they were already in the house. I walked in with Russ and just stood there, staring at this girl. And I knew her immediately. I guess it is strange to say I met my own daughter when she was 18. I had never seen her before, but I knew her. No mix up here. She was my baby. At last, after all these years. We fell into each others arms and held each other so tight. As though if we let go, all would evaporate.
I learnt then, that no matter what others do to you and what you think is out of your power to do anything about; if you believe with all your heart and never lose hope you will get your heart’s desires.
Every day for 18 years I believed that I would meet her and see her for the first time ever. It did happen. My heart did not mend immediately. That has taken many years and I still feel gutted at times when the memories of the pain surface unexpected. But I never hated the people responsible for what they did to us.
It has not always been easy either as my daughter was brought up differently and her life was not ideal by my standards and her parents instilled in her a belief that her birth mother was a very bad girl and she had to be given to them for her protection. I guess they were told these things by the people who performed the forced illegal adoptions, to make themselves the good people.
It must have been very confusing for her when she first met me and I did not fall into the boxes that had been built to house this strange character called a birth mother.
It was many years later that she finally realised that I did not just give her away and until that time it did cause a certain amount of distrust, especially when she became a mother herself and could not comprehend giving her own children away. She did learn the truth and we are now in each other’s lives. She lives not too far away and I am Grandma Della to her six children.
(Della with her family, above)