Real Life

Adopted nurse tracks down birth mum and cares for her until death

She wasn’t the fairytale figure I had imagined, but she was still my mother.

Phyllis Whitsell cared for her alcoholic mum for nine years and never revealed she was the daughter she gave away.
Phyllis, a 59-year-old Birmingham nurse from Selly Oak in the UK, was adopted at aged four and told as a child she was an orphan whose mother, Bridget Ryan, had died of tuberculosis – a lie that Phyllis intuitively never believed.
As she grew up Phyllis was told never to tell anyone she was adopted – a shame she carried with her most of her life – but when she began training as a nurse she discovered that information had often been deliberately withheld from adopted children and so she began her search for her mother.
“After I was counselled by a social worker to prepare me for what I might find, I was able to get my original birth certificate,” explains Phyllis.
“My next port of call was the orphanage in Coleshill where I had been left as a baby.
To her surprise Phyllis was astonished to learn that there was a member of staff who had been there since she was admitted at the age of eight months.
"She was reluctant to tell me much about my mother but it was clear that she disapproved of her," Phyllis said of the woman.
“I had no idea why, I thought it was just because she had handed me over to the orphanage at such a young age.
“The more she tried to put me off, the more curious I became and little did I know what I was going to uncover.
“Eventually, I slipped under the radar and did my own detective work until one day I found myself on Mary’s doorstep.”
Phyllis discovered that her mother Bridget was actually an abusive alcoholic and troublemaker known as Tipperary Mary. Mary was in a bad way when Phyllis saw her – physically sick and mentally unstable – but the once abandoned child was curious about the woman who had given her up.
Tipperary Mary.
“My job as a nurse protected me and my training made we warm to her vulnerability and I could hide behind that role,” explains Phyllis. “By then I was a district nurse, so I just unofficially added her to my rounds.
“I took her clean clothes, bathed her wounds and got her to talk about the five children she had given away, including me.”
Phyllis cared for Mary like this from 1981 to 1990 but all the while never told her who she really was.
“Although my heart went out to the damaged woman who turned out to be my mother, I knew I could never allow her to disrupt my own family.
“But nor could I turn my back on her.
“She wasn’t the fairytale figure I had imagined, but she was still my mother.”
As it turns out the experience was often bittersweet.
“The day she spoke affectionately of ‘little Phyllis’ and told me my birth date accurately was the best, and the worst, day of my life,” said Phyllis.
When Mary died at the age of 74 that is when Phyllis was inspired to turn her story of her strange relationship with her mother into a book called Finding Tipperary Mary, The Search for my Mother.
Phyllis still cares for others, and works at a nursing home in Selly Park.

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