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Adopted: Loss, love, family and reunion written by Jo Willis and Brigitta Baker

Jo Willis and Brigitta Baker were two of thousands of children adopted during the closed adoption era from the 1950-mid 1970’s. In Adopted. Loss, love, family and reunion each shares their story of how the trauma of being separated from their mother at birth impacted their lives greatly.

Their insightful and deeply moving stories were written out of a desire to

wake adopted people up to the impact adoption may have had on them and to raise awareness and understanding about a topic that affects so many New Zealanders.’

Jo and Brigitta were born at a time having a baby out of wedlock was seen as shameful and no financial or other support was available which would have allowed an unmarried mother to keep her baby.

Adoption was seen as the best way of providing a loving home for these babies, and not allowing them access to information about their birth parents was a way protect them from the stigma of illegitimacy.

To be fair, that the separation from their birth mothers would trigger a deep and lifelong trauma in these children was not anticipated or understood at the time. But even when alarm bells began to ring, it was not until the 1980’s that open adoption became the norm.

Brigitta was adopted into a family in Gore which had two sons but wanted a daughter as well to ‘round off their family’. Her childhood was complicated by the fact that her adoptive mother was bipolar and was very unwell at times.

As a child she was not really interested in finding her birth mother. It was not until she became a mother herself for the first time that a deep core of emotional turmoil, which she had kept buried for over thirty years, opened up and eventually led her to search for her birth mother.

At first each struggled to understand where the other was coming from. But they persevered and Brigitta now regrets that she left it so long, so denying Jan the chance to know her children as babies and that she herself lost the opportunity to enjoy her birth mothering love earlier in her life, a love which her adopted mother had not been able to provide.

Knowing now that she has a place in the hearts of both of her birth parents, and has also been made welcome by their families, has added richness to her life.

Jo was adopted by a married couple who couldn’t have children. Her adoptive father was a church minister. She was raised in a secure, loving, and stable family but from being a compliant child at primary and intermediate school she turned into a defiant rebellious teenager who often hurled verbal abuse at her parents. They couldn’t work out what was going on with her and understand that inside her were feelings of isolation, pain, and a sense of aloneness. Her desire to trace her genetic history grew.

Jo’s husband Lawrie persuaded her to wait until she was 21 and had the resilience to cope before she began her search. Serendipitously on the day after she had posted a letter to Jigsaw, asking to go on their registry, an advertisement was posted in the Dominion Post newspaper wanting to trace her. But it was not her mother, but her grandmother who had sought contact. Jo met her and her birth father first.

Her birth mother flew in shortly afterwards but was overwhelmed and couldn’t cope after the first meeting. She felt they had bullied her into flying over from Australia and was emotionally unprepared. She had closed the door and shut away that part of her life long ago when she gave Jo up for adoption and was not ready to re-open it.

This initial rejection hurt Jo deeply. It would take years before they reached an authentic healthy relationship, that is good for both of them, without the patterns of the past undermining it.

In the last part of the book their children, their partners and some of their birth parents have also told their stories and how closed adoption took an emotional toll on them too. I found this really useful and interesting.

As I read this book it made me think of some of the families I am close to who adopted a child. I wish I had had this book to hand especially when they were teenagers and family relationships became fraught with tension. I would have understood the reasons better and been able to be more emphatic and supportive.

This book has been published at the time when our Adoption Laws are being reformed because Aotearoa’s main adoption law, the Adoption Act 1955, no longer meets the needs of our society or reflects modern adoption best practice.

The aim is to create a new system that puts tamariki, our children, at the heart of our adoption laws/ Undoubtedly all who read this book will be thankful that the Adoption Act 1955, which has harmed so many, will soon be history!

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Massey University Press


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