Clutching her eight-week-old baby in the crook of her right arm, a large holdall in the other, Angela Patrick entered the offices of an adoption charity in west London. Told to wait, she settled into a chair, careful not to disturb her son, Paul, who was sleeping peacefully. The date was 16 January 1964.
After 15 minutes, a young adoption officer appeared. "I'm just going to take him to show to the couple," she said brightly, taking Paul gently from Angela's lap. Angela waited patiently for her son to return so she could say goodbye , but he never came. It would be 30 years before she saw him again.
In February 1963, Angela was 19 and living at home in Rayleigh, Essex. She had an interesting job in London, a gaggle of girlfriends and a new boyfriend she was sweet on. Life centred on the innocent pleasures of dancing, coffee bars and parties.
Raised in a Roman Catholic household, she was taught to adhere to a strict order of things as far as men were concerned: meet someone and marry him, with absolutely no sex beforehand. Children would follow, discreetly. Although the pill had been introduced a couple of years earlier, it wasn't widely available and certainly not to a young Catholic girl. As she neared her 20s, she had no understanding of sex; her only education was six words from her mother: "Never let a man touch you."
But at a house party in suburban Essex, Angela discarded her mother's advice. A few weeks later, she found herself pregnant. Nearly 50 years on, she is still profoundly affected by what happened to her. "From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I felt sheer panic," says Angela, 68, who is warm and engaging. "I was in denial for weeks. My overwhelming feeling was shame – at how badly I'd let my mother down. But when I finally accepted it, my one thought was: how can I get through this without anyone finding out?"
Remaining at home was out of the question. Impressions mattered above all else to her mother, and it was unthinkable that the neighbours see her daughter pregnant: not only was she unmarried, she didn't even have a boyfriend who could offer to marry her – her brief fling, with an unreliable charmer, had ended even before she discovered she was pregnant. "If you even left the house dressed a bit risqué, people would gossip. Pregnancy was something talked about in hushed voices – even if the woman was married," says Angela. "For my mother, bodies were something to be ashamed of."
She stayed with a friend to bide her time until a solution was found. For the final two months of her pregnancy, she would move into a Catholic home for unmarried mothers-to-be, and then have her baby adopted.
There was no alternative. Unmarried mothers suffered a huge social stigma – she would not have been able to work, there were no benefits, and she could not live at home. And her months of denial meant it was too late to consider an abortion. "I've been over it a million times and wondered how I could have kept my baby, but I've never come up with an answer," says Angela. "I would never, ever have been able to go home with a baby."
The Loreto Convent Mother and Baby Home for Unmarried Mothers was as joyless as its name suggests. Run by nuns, it fed and sheltered young pregnant women in the run up to childbirth and a few weeks beyond. It was a Victorian institution with few comforts: the shared bedrooms were cold and the bathrooms communal.
The girls were put to work in the laundry or, in Angela's case, the "milk kitchen", preparing bottles of formula for the newborns who had returned from hospital before they were adopted. In the nuns' eyes, the girls were there because they had sinned, and must atone. If they laundered enough nappies and sterilised enough milk bottles then maybe, just maybe, God would forgive them.
The nursery, Angela recalls, was like a Dickensian orphanage. The babies screamed night and day. They were usually hungry – if they didn't finish their milk in the allotted feeding time, they went without, and if they were sick down their tops, they had to lie in their cold, wet clothes. Kissing your baby was forbidden: it wasn't appropriate to get too attached.
Angela's baby, a boy she named Paul, was born two weeks late. It was a difficult birth and she remained at the convent for nearly two months. This gave her time to form an intense bond with him. As adoption day loomed, the thought of giving him up was unbearable. "It was impossible to think of another woman mothering him," she says. On the day itself, she recalls, she was numb. It wasn't until she arrived home that the pain of having given up her son hit her. "I didn't think I would ever recover from it," she says, her voice choking with emotion. "Giving up your child is probably the worst thing you could be asked to do."
On 19 January 1994, a letter landed on Angela's doormat. It was from the adoption charity, saying Paul had been in touch and would Angela be interested in making contact? She sobbed uncontrollably. "I imagined how much it had taken for him to track down the charity. To think he had searched for me, not knowing if I would want anything to do with him, and might reject him all over again, broke my heart."
In the three decades since having Paul, Angela had married and had a daughter. She hadn't forgotten Paul, but had consigned his memory to a safe place. "If I had kept thinking about him, it would have eaten away at me," she says. "I could never have moved on."
She never talked to her mother about it. "I was angry for a long time that I'd been made to give up my son. And the way my mother dealt with things was never to discuss them, so it was never mentioned." She did forgive her mother, who died in 1985. "If I hadn't, I would have spent the rest of my life feeling bitter."
Angela wrote back to the charity and two weeks later, a letter arrived from her son. He told her how strange it felt to be writing to her, how much he'd thought about her and how curious he was about her. She wrote back, and they arranged to meet. "My husband urged me to be cautious, in case I got hurt all over again," she says. "But even if he'd written to say he was in prison, I'd have gone to visit him."
The day itself, she says, is hard to describe. "I'd imagined so many versions of the encounter over the years – but when it came to it, we just hugged and didn't let go."
Their relationship moved quickly. Within days, her son visited with his fiancee. "It was very intense, like a romance, and I was totally caught up in the moment," says Angela. "It was such a lovely time. But it was sad, too – he showed me photographs of himself as a toddler and a teenager, and I felt so sad I'd missed out on all those years."
Today, their relationship has found its level. Although he supports Angela in speaking about her experiences, he prefers to remain anonymous. "His job takes him abroad a lot, but we meet up, usually at my daughter Katharine's, when he's back. I'd rather see more of him, but I'm realistic – he has another family and a life of 30 years that didn't involve me. I've got no regrets, but I'm sad my mother never got to meet him."
Katharine's story: 'I loved suddenly having a big brother'
"The most amazing thing about Mum is how she's always been so together," says Angela's daughter, Katharine, 35. "She's never acted like a victim, and has always been secure and, well, normal. Other women, having gone through what she had, might not have been able to cope. But she's a strong character.
"When she told me, I was still at school, revising for my A-levels. She'd been acting strangely for a few weeks, lying around in a hammock, not at all herself. Dad had been acting weirdly too, so I was really unnerved. I thought she was going to say she had cancer or something.
"So I was relieved but felt so sad that she'd had to go through all that. I was sad to hear that she felt God had only forgiven her when I was born. It explained the gaps in her memory of when she was younger, too: I'd always thought it was odd she can't remember things everyone else in her family can – now I know she was blocking things out.
"I'm angry at my grandmother. I wasn't brought up religiously, so I don't understand the indoctrination my mother had, or the society that she grew up in. My mum is a good person, a nice person, and her own mother behaved in an inhumane way. I can't imagine letting those beliefs win over what I felt for my child. I have a 10-week old baby, and the thought of being forced to give her up is unimaginable.
"My grandmother died when I was eight. I don't think, once I'd found out about what had happened to my mum, that I could have forgiven her like Mum did, or would want to have continued a relationship with her.
"I loved suddenly having an older brother as I'd always wanted one and was envious of friends who did. We look alike, we have similar fiery temperaments, we both love languages, particularly Spanish. I actually think if we'd grown up together, we would have torn each other's eyes out. Perhaps as a result, we've never really fallen out. We've always been protective of each other. The summer after we met, I went travelling and he took me to the airport, and called me all the time to make sure I was OK. I'm protective of him, and always a little bit judgmental over his girlfriends.
"Mum has a different relationship with him. They have such an intense bond: the experience they have both been through, in their own ways, can sometimes have a negative impact on their relationship.
"My own relationship with Mum has always been strong, but since I discovered what she went through – and particularly since I've had children myself – my respect and admiration for her has deepened. She's a survivor."
• The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers, by Angela Patrick and Lynne Barrett-Lee, is published by Simon & Schuster, £6.99. To order a copy for £5.59, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846
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