My 21-year quest to find my son: A Kiwi mother shares her story

''There was just this emptiness that you couldn't fill. I couldn't talk about it, even with good friends.''
Pip Murdoch

The year was 1970. It was the time of the Crewe murders, John Rowles’ single Cheryl Moana Marie was the number-one song, and police and anti-Vietnam War protestors clashed outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Auckland, where visiting US Vice President Spiro Agnew was staying.

Actress Danielle Cormack and former Green co-leader Metiria Turei were born. Fewer than 1000 people were on the unemployment benefit and only two percent of working-aged people relied solely on social welfare support of any kind. It would be another three years before the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) came into being.

It was also the year a then 20-year-old Pip Murdoch put her newborn son up for adoption, signing away any rights to the baby she named Nicholas, but who she would later come to know as David.

Pip’s memoir on adoption has been a decade in the making.

Pip is now 69. A trained nurse and grief counsellor, she and husband Simon, a former diplomat, live in the upmarket Wellington suburb of Kelburn.

She reveals the search for her son, 21 years after his birth, in Relative Strangers, a memoir set during a time of massive social change and inter-generational upheaval.

It’s taken her almost a decade to write, after she ditched the first draft – “my life generally” – to instead concentrate on a period that spans growing up in the 1960s, her pregnancy and “confinement”, and the subsequent heartbreaking, quest to find her firstborn.

Pip grew up in Southland in a strict, very religious household. Her father was an Anglican vicar. Gore, in those days, she says, was neither stuffy nor middle-class.

“It was a hive of naughty behaviour – a real little Peyton Place.”

Still, the prevailing attitudes were anything but liberal. Pre-marital sex was something good girls didn’t do, women wanting contraception had to give their fiancé’s name and the date of the proposed marriage, and unwed mothers were expected to hide their pregnancies and give up their babies.

Pip was a trainee nurse, flatting and “having a ball” in Christchurch when she became pregnant.

“They were party times, it was fun, but it was also a time of friction between our parents’ values and our own values,” she tells.

“Many of us got pregnant, some got married, some did what I did. Very few could keep their babies. It would hardly ever happen, there was no financial support and it was a ‘stain’.”

Relative Strangers: A Mother’s Adoption Memoir (Your Books on Fern Publishing) is out on August 22.

Worse than that, in the eyes of many, it was considered sinful; a threat to the respectability of a young woman’s family.

David’s father suggested they marry, but the offer was politely turned down.

“I think he was genuine in his offer, but it would never have worked,” Pip admits.

Instead, she made the decision to adopt her baby out. It pains her to reflect on that decision now and she very deliberately avoids saying it was the correct thing to do.

“It was the right path. It was very much the mood of the time… It really was the only option.”

Only Pip’s parents and a few close friends knew she was pregnant. Like hundreds of other young, unwed women, many of whom were forced to give up the babies, her absence was explained away – in Pip’s case it was glandular fever.

Rather than taking herself off to a home for unwed mums, Pip found a sympathetic family, living in Omarama in the Mackenzie district, who took her in.

Her wee baby was born in Kurow Hospital three days before Christmas. Pip called him Nicholas, for obvious reasons, but never got to hold him.

“They took him straight out of the delivery room,” Pip tells. “You weren’t meant to see the baby after that, but I asked the doctor if I could, and he said I could go and see him but I wasn’t to pick him up.”

Pip returned to Christchurch and to nursing, then went on to marry and have three more children – now aged between 43 and 37. She thought of her first child often and grieved for what might have been.

“There was just this emptiness that you couldn’t fill. I couldn’t talk about it, even with good friends. When I went back to nursing, I’d be looking in prams and I’d look at the parents wondering if they had him.”

It was a long time coming, but Pip says meeting David (left) was “unique” and “overwhelming”.

Changes to the Adoption Act in 1985 opened the way for children and birth parents to find each other. While Pip ensured there was no veto on David contacting her, it would be several more years until her own search began.

She doesn’t give a lot away, explaining that David’s story is his own, but concedes that meeting him for the first time was “something overwhelming and unique that I cannot adequately put into words”.

“I had always thought of him as Nicholas until I met David, and I had always thought of him as a baby until I started looking for him, and then I realised I wasn’t looking for a baby, I was looking for a man.”

Related stories