Adoption network VANISH helps Helen Nicholson find her mother

Helen Nicholson with her adoption papers and photos of herself as a child. Picture: TARA GOONAN
Helen Nicholson with her adoption papers and photos of herself as a child. Picture: TARA GOONAN

After years of self-doubt Albury's Helen Nicholson believes finding her birth mother was like 'coming home'. She tells JANET HOWIE that Mother's Day is a time to celebrate family and the adoption network VANISH, which helped her search. 

ONCE upon a time, a young woman met up with her boyfriend after a two-week break.

He had news — that break had been, in fact, his honeymoon.

She had news too — she was pregnant.

Harsh reality ended the fairytale for Mary, not her real name, more than 45 years ago.

She spent the last phase of her pregnancy in St Anthony’s Home, Croydon, where she shared stories with other girls her age about to become unmarried mothers.

But any plans they had to keep their children were dismissed by the Catholic Adoption Agency.

In mid-1968, Mary gave birth to a daughter, who is now Helen Nicholson, an Albury mother of two.

Helen was adopted out as a baby, raised on a farm in rural NSW and as a young adult found and contacted her birth mother, aided by Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self-Help (VANISH).

However, such a brief summary fails to capture the years of immense pain this situation caused Helen, Mary and their extended families.

As a teenager, Helen felt isolated and was diagnosed with depression.

“I would roam the paddocks on our farm on my own asking God, ‘Who am I? Why have me if she didn’t want to keep me?’,” she says.

“For years I wished I was aborted and have had attempts at suicide.

“I’d curl up in bed, eyes shut tight, mouth stretched wide, silently I would scream, ‘Mum’.

“I couldn’t consider finding her as I dreaded being rejected a second time.

“If my own mother abandoned me, she didn’t love me — no-one can.”

On a weekend when tributes to motherhood fill our community, Helen is sharing her story with others whose lives have been changed by adoption.

She hopes they will join a new VANISH support group in Albury-Wodonga, with an information session due to be held in Glenroy on May 20.

“I really just want to reach out to other people and say, ‘Look, here’s my story in all its ugliness and glory. You can, you know, just sit and grieve and share or sit and listen and just feel for once in your life you’re not alone with all these feelings’,” Helen says.

“We do feel very much alone with this as we go through life.

“I think I’ve turned out OK, I really do, but it’s been a 30-year journey to get that way.”

Brought up in a strict, undemonstrative Catholic family, Helen had always known she was adopted, as was her sister.

As a child she received a story book on this topic and when 12 her adoptive parents obtained a booklet from the Catholic Adoption Agency that gave a non-identifying story of her history.

“On one hand I found it traumatising,” she says.

“On the other hand I found it a big relief that finally there’s someone I am like out there.

“I clung to this booklet from that age, realising there was more to me than the highly emotional and rebellious teenager I eventually became.”

Helen always intended to seek her birth mother, but waited for the right time.

“It wasn’t until I was 21 that I got my birth certificate and I sat on that for five years, I was happy just to have that,” she says.

“I’d hug it to my chest in a state of bliss and say, ‘I’ve nearly found you’.”

Changes to adoption laws opened up records and VANISH located a woman they believed to be Helen’s mother.

Helen and Mary wrote letters for some time until they both felt ready to face a reunion, which took place in Albury — a convenient halfway point — in 1995.

“It was at the train station at departure that I had a panic attack,” Helen says.

“I couldn’t possibly make this trip and jeopardise the last remaining skerrick of sanity I had left.”

But she went and found in her birth mother a woman just as keen to recapture what had been lost.

“It was a surreal and beautiful time that blasted away 26 years and had me live my life over from December 1968, when I was adopted,” Helen says.

“Hearing her side of the story broke my heart.

“When Mary and her mother got together, she said they used to cry every year when my birthday came around.”

Eventually Helen met Mary’s other children and husband, “a wonderful man ... who I am humbled to say accepted me warmly into his life and family”.

There were many aunts, uncles and cousins to meet also, as Mary came from a family of seven.

“I came from a quiet family of four and was thrust in the middle of some 20 animated relatives,” Helen recalls.

“I was out of my depth; completely overwhelmed and frightened by all the attention.

“I learned that my birth mother and her family would laugh and cry and celebrate life to the max.

“Emotions were scattered around like confetti.”

Some time after, Helen found her birth father, prompted by the fact she didn’t look like Mary and wanted to see who she resembled.

Their meeting was cordial, but when Helen overheard him later describe her as “the lady who thinks she’s my daughter”, she decided their relationship need go no further.

Helen and Mary, however, remain close and part of each other’s lives.

“It’s mother-daughter, it’s friendship, it’s great mates, it’s a lot of wonderful things,” Helen says.

“I feel when I am with her that I have come home.”

And there has also been a deepening of the love she shares with her adoptive mother.

“The threat of finding my replacement mother, my real mother, was gone,” she says.

“It is said to be a fairly common outcome.”

Supported by an understanding husband, counselling, VANISH and related books, Helen is coming to terms with her experiences.

“I now feel my wounds are healing and 30 years of pain, loss, rejection and abandonment are separating from my soul,” she says.

“That is not to say there is a cure for adoption, quite the opposite; every day some new and random thought pops up.

“One thing that has persevered through life is lack of long-term relationships.

“I discovered during my teenage and adult years that friendship was fraught with loss and rejection, a continuum of my experience at birth.”

Yet being with Mary as an adult has shown her the depths of love, a love that drove her birth mother to try to give her a better future despite the tears that followed.

“Love was a bottomless pit that is not necessarily a good thing when I am trying to reform boundaries and perimeters in my world,” Helen says.

“Love is learning to trust without fear of abandonment, again.

“Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and how lucky am I to cherish two mothers on this day.

“Both have had pivotal roles in my life and have made me the person I am today.

“A person who has accomplished much, has regrets like everyone else and is grateful for every day of my life.”

Helen Nicholson, pictured with her two sons Brendan and James (aged 12 and 9), looking at the booklet she was given when she was 12 to tell her about her birth parents. Picture: TARA GOONAN

Helen Nicholson, pictured with her two sons Brendan and James (aged 12 and 9), looking at the booklet she was given when she was 12 to tell her about her birth parents. Picture: TARA GOONAN

FOR many women separated from their son or daughter through adoption, Mother’s Day is not a celebration.

Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self-Help (VANISH) says the experience can be a trauma that people struggle with throughout their lives.

VANISH manager Coleen Clare says losses in adoption are difficult to mourn in a society where adoption is seen as a problem-solving event filled with joy.

“Grief is therefore conducted in secret and without support, or it is buried and denied,” she says.

Which makes a day like Mother's Day particularly hard.

“It is often the day a mother feels the loss of her son or daughter acutely; a day of mourning for many, whether or not they have since reunited.”

VANISH provides professional and confidential free search and support services for those who have a personal experience of separation from their family of origin, such as those affected by adoption in Victoria, throughout Australia and overseas, affected by donor conception or former wards of the state. Support groups have been part of VANISH for 25 years, offering a safe place where people can be honest about how they feel and realise they are not alone.

Funding has been made available for individuals with a forced adoption experience to access a maximum of 12 counselling sessions per calendar year, via the ATAPS program. People wanting to access these services need to obtain a mental health plan from their GP and then locate an ATAPS counsellor.

On Tuesday, May 20 VANISH representatives will hold an information session at Glenecho Neighbourhood House, 949 Burrows Road, Glenroy, to discuss recent research into the impact of separation and adoption.

The two-hour event, which begins at 2.30pm, will also cover new legislation regarding search and contact, managing relationships, support services and the new 

Albury-Wodonga support group.

There will also be a drop-in session at the Albury Commercial Club from 6.30pm to 8pm. Phone (03) 9328 8611, email or visit