Mother love - in all forms

LONG ROAD: Jo Mulholland and baby Bette.
LONG ROAD: Jo Mulholland and baby Bette.

Whether you are connected biologically or through adoption, it’s love that binds and nurtures the relationship between mother and child. Today, three people share their stories about a mother’s love. 


Bette Cosgrove knows the power of secrets and lies. For 44 years, her parents and grandparents held close the fact she was adopted out at birth. She was none the wiser that her ‘‘heroine’’ mother fought tooth and nail to get her adored baby back.

REUNITED: Jo Mulholland, left, with daughter Bette Cosgrove.
REUNITED: Jo Mulholland, left, with daughter Bette Cosgrove.

Falling pregnant at 17, in 1961, her mother, Jo, was packed off by her strict Dutch Protestant parents to family friends in Tauranga for the last three months of her confinement, quitting nursing training before her pregnancy became too visible.

Jo’s parents forbade her from keeping the child, insisting she give it up for adoption.

When she went into labour, the ‘‘family friends’’ simply dumped her at Tauranga Hospital and disappeared. Alone and frightened, Jo gave birth to a little girl.

TOGETHER: Maria Pasene with her 9-year-old adopted son Kalani-Jack.
TOGETHER: Maria Pasene with her 9-year-old adopted son Kalani-Jack.

She was determined not to lose her daughter. Resolute, she refused to sign papers for a formal adoption. But the child was taken away nonetheless and over the next few months Jo was put under pressure to sign forms for an adoption to become legal.

Bette, now 52, from Khandallah, says if it wasn’t for a nurse her mother knew from Wellington – who secretly brought Bette to her in the night to breastfeed – and an understanding obstetrician, she would never have seen her mother again.

Bette’s father Ted and her mother had been childhood sweethearts. They broke up when high school ended and Ted went into the Navy.

TUMMY MUMMY: Shivonne Harrington with 4-year-old Isabel.
TUMMY MUMMY: Shivonne Harrington with 4-year-old Isabel.

When he returned home, he heard whispers that Jo had had a baby. ‘‘Dad went round to Mum’s place and as soon as he saw her sitting there at the kitchen table looking utterly devastated, he knew the whispers were true. 

‘‘He went in and promised her then and there that they would get me back and promptly asked Mum to marry him,’’ Bette says.

With the help of the obstetrician and nurse who helped deliver Bette, Social Welfare reunited Jo with her baby three and a half months after her birth.

Jo and Ted, who are still married today, went on to have two more children.

The secret was revealed by Jo’s mother on her deathbed to Bette’s sister Sonia in 2004.

‘‘She was a woman who was strongly wedded to the truth and she wanted to let go of this secret before she died, but she’d never had the courage to tell me.’’

A few months later Sonia told Bette.

‘‘I was more upset that this had been kept from me all my life than the fact that these events happened,’’ Bette says. ‘‘I think my mother was the heroine in all this, and my dad the hero. They fought so hard to get me back against all the odds and under the shadow of all that shame heaped upon my mother. I feel really loved and special by what they did.’’

It was another few months before Bette told her mother she knew about this family secret.

‘‘It was Mother’s Day 2005. I sat her down and said, ‘Mum, I know I was adopted out when I was born. I know the whole story.’

‘‘She was in shock and unable to talk about it. She said there were things about that whole sorry situation that she was not even able to talk about with Dad.’’

Bette says she felt nothing but compassion for her mother, who had been traumatised by the ordeal. ‘‘I also really felt for the parents who wanted to adopt me and who cared for me those first few months of my life. Imagine the joy of being given a baby only to have that baby taken away again. I feel really sad for them.
‘‘All I can offer them is the knowledge that I had a wonderful childhood with a wonderful family. I’m sure they would have wanted the best for me.’’

Bette’s story has been turned into a play by Bare Hunt Collective through a series of verbatim interviews.
Three journeys through three pivotal parts of her life, blending with stories from Bare Hunt Collective playwrights Victoria Abbott and Jackie Shaw, starting with Bette’s adoption story.

The play was workshopped to an audience in Auckland earlier this year and will be staged next year.
Jo watched the show from the back of the theatre with Bette. There were tears, Bette says, from both of them.

‘‘It was highly emotional to see our story on the stage. But there was this huge sense of relief that it was all out in the open. I’m sure what happened to Mum happened to a lot of young women back then, only most of them would never have seen their babies again. We’re the lucky ones.’’


Giving her baby daughter up for adoption, says Shivonne Harrington, was an act of ultimate love. And it changed her life forever, eventually setting her on a career path.

The 21-year-old is in her last year as a student at Canterbury University, majoring in education and minoring in psychology. ‘‘I want to be a school counsellor and that had a lot to do with having the baby. I had to go to the counsellor at school when I was pregnant and that lady wasn’t very helpful.’’ A major life event like having a baby and giving her up for adoption, she says ‘‘can’t not have an influence’’. 

Shivonne agreed to an open adoption and there are no barriers to her seeing her copper-haired child, Isabel, whose adoptive parents are Jimi and Sarah Mckay.

‘‘I see her all the time,’’ she says. ‘‘She’s a happy 4-year-old, full of life and joy.’’ Weekly dinners with the family have been curtailed so as not to keep Isabel up late now she’s at preschool, but the Christchurch families visit each other and even holiday together ‘‘and I’m always babysitting her – I often pick her up for the day’’.

Isabel refers to her birth mother as ‘‘Vonnie’’ and ‘‘my baby mother’’. This happy situation grew out of a miserable one, partly by luck.


‘‘You can,’’ says Maria Pasene, ‘‘create a family in many different ways, and love children no less because they’re not biological children.’’

The 48-year-old and her 51-year-old husband, Keith, are parents to 9-year-old Kalani-Jack, and caregivers to a little girl.

‘‘There was a time,’’ says Maria, ‘‘when I had resigned myself to the fact I might not have children in my life though I’d always have nephews and nieces and be the aunt everyone wanted, with the money to buy cool presents. You do get to a point where you’re so exhausted emotionally and physically that you think it’s not going to happen.’’ 

Maria, who was brought up in Upper Hutt and lives in Christchurch, had every reason to believe when she found the right man she would have as many children as she wanted. She is from a big Niuean and Cook Island family of seven children, and her brothers and sisters have 20 children between them, mostly born when the parents were in their early 20s. 

Maria was nearly 30 when she met her husband, then studying graphic design at Christchurch Polytechnic.
‘‘My siblings were all very fertile and I had assumed when I was ready I’d have a baby and get back to work, as you do. But I was in my late 20s and hadn’t met the father of my children. That was the real difference about Keith. I had a clear sense of seeing him as the father of my children. I didn’t realise they wouldn’t be biological. He’s a stunning father, a very involved daddy.

‘‘We tried to have children pretty much immediately. It just didn’t happen.’’

They went through rounds of unsuccessful fertility treatment – ‘‘and then Kalani came to us through one of our nieces ... His mother had three children already and made the decision she had no capacity for other children. She contacted me and asked Keith and me if we wanted to have this baby. She was very early in her pregnancy.’’ 

Kalani’s birth mother lives in Wellington, where most of Maria’s family lives, and Maria travelled to be with her for scans and was the one to cut the umbilical cord when Kalani was born.

‘‘For us it was a really generous gift from her. She’s the same age as me, her other children were teenagers and he was a very late baby for her. It was an unplanned pregnancy and she was on her own. 

‘‘It was about a gift to us but also her being honest about her own situation and wanting the best for the baby.

‘‘It was not the normal process of adoption but we still had to do all of the legal papers and go through our lawyer and she through her lawyer.’’

The adoption was ‘‘open from day one. He gets on well with his birth mother. She’s gorgeous. 

‘‘When he was little we called her ‘tummy mummy’. It’s hard to talk to a 3-year-old about birth mothers.

e’d say she grew you in her tummy for us because mummy’s tummy was broken. 

‘‘We’re clear with both our children who their parents are and what the situation is ... who brought them into the world and how they were gifts. 

‘‘The second child was a different situation, not permanent at this stage. She comes from a complicated background.’’ 

Before they became caregivers, the couple tried to adopt a second child and found the process almost as taxing as fertility treatment, with cycles of hope and disappointment. 

‘‘When it came to caregiving and the wee girl we’re looking after, we were clear it needed to be permanent.

‘‘We have a different story as a family, but for them it’s just the way it is. We believe your children can come to you in very different ways and that’s how our children came to us.’’

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