My Story: Search for Birth Origins Takes Unexpected Turn

By Elli Jacobs

On her first trip to Greece, Penny visited the Acropolis in Athens, which was constructed during the fifth century BC.
On her first trip to Greece, Penny visited the Acropolis in Athens, which was constructed during the fifth century BC.
Growing up, Penny Zagarelou-Mackieson always knew she was adopted. She enjoyed a happy childhood and upbringing but when she started a family of her own, she felt she needed to explore her actual birth origins. However when at 35, she met her natural mother and siblings, something didn’t feel right.

I was born in Melbourne in 1963 at the Queen Victoria Hospital. I was immediately separated from my mother and subsequently adopted by Lionel and Lois Mackieson. Together with my older adopted brother, Peter, we were raised in a loving, nurturing family on a farm in the small town of Buchan South in the East Gippsland region of Victoria.

It was never a secret either in our home or community that we were adopted. Dad and Mum told us the truth early on, so the fact that I didn’t look at all like my brother or much like them was no big deal.

However, I was always curious about my background. I often asked Mum to tell me about how I joined the family in the hope she would say something new that would reveal my origins. But it was always the same narrative: “We were told that your mother was young, she was at school when she got pregnant and was going back to finish her education, and she was from the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne.” 

I continued looking for clues and sometimes went through my adoptive parents’ paperwork to try and find a copy of my adoption order, which might reveal my natural mother’s identity. But I never found anything. Even when Mum passed away in 2011 (Dad had died in 1988) and I inherited all her papers, still there was nothing. My legal birth certificate included only the names of my adoptive parents, as if I had been born to them.

Seeking my origins

Six months after getting married to my husband Bruce, in 1989, I began formally seeking information about my background. We were planning to have children, and I wanted to access my natural mother’s medical records to see if there were any health issues that I should be aware of.

I approached the Adoption Information Service (AIS) in Victoria and six months later I received my adoption court records and original birth certificate, which identified my natural mother. Her name was clearly Anglo-Celtic. However, the records made no mention of my mother being at school. And her place of residence was not in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, but rather in the Latrobe Valley region of Victoria.

None of this information matched what Dad and Mum had always told me. I was confused however at the time I was busy working full-time and establishing our family home, so I just put the adoption records in the back of my filing cabinet for the time being.

Having given birth to our first child, Patrick, in 1995, tragically our second pregnancy ended too prematurely in early 1997, when I delivered twins, Hayley and Liam, at 22 weeks and five days’ gestation. The loss of my babies was such a devastating event in my life that it triggered my need to connect with my natural family.

I pulled out my adoption records and contacted VANISH, a post-adoption support service in Victoria, to help me find my natural mother. VANISH located her and, with their guidance, I carefully wrote her a short letter seeking to confirm that she was the person I was looking for. She wrote back straight away. We began exchanging letters and photos and I expressed how much I wanted to meet her. She had five other children who didn’t know about me, but eventually she plucked up the courage and told them. Thus, several months later, in 1998, I got to meet her and started to nurture relationships with her and some of my maternal half-siblings.

From the outset, I didn’t think I looked like any of them. This never changed, as over subsequent years, I met some extended maternal family members and looked through family photo albums. Personality-wise we were also very different. I’m quite extroverted, expressive and passionate and I don’t mind talking about my feelings. But they were much more guarded and reserved.

I was told that I looked like my paternal family. But I was never able to confirm that – I’d only had one phone conversation with the man believed to be my natural father shortly before he passed away. I neither met nor saw photos of him or any of his family. Over the years, it bothered me more and more, and eventually I decided to take a genealogical DNA test.

Uncovering the truth

In 2016, I took an AncestryDNA test. Much to my surprise, the results revealed that I was 70 per cent Greek, and over half of my matched relatives had Greek names. I had no Anglo-Celtic ancestry whatsoever. I emailed AncestryDNA asking them to check whether they could have mixed up my sample, but they confirmed that the results were accurate.

Eventually, in April 2019, my Anglo-Celtic ‘natural mother’ agreed to take an AncestryDNA test, too, after I persuaded her that we should clarify our relationship. As I suspected, the test results affirmed we weren’t related. I felt terrible disappointment rather than shock – I loved her and her family and wanted to be related to them.

For the family, it was a real shock and, after nurturing relationships with each other for over 20 years, things would never be the same. Within months, all communication between us had ceased. Later, I was advised that their actual natural daughter was confirmed through DNA testing, but I don’t know whether they’ve since formed social relationships with each other.

Finally … my family

With my DNA test results in hand, I returned to AIS in May 2019 and requested that they find my real natural mother’s identity, and thus my own original identity.

Within five weeks they had identified a Greek woman they believed had given birth to me. AIS discovered that soon after my birth and relinquishment she had gotten married, though probably not to my natural father. They also discovered that she’d had other children while living in Melbourne and that the family had returned to Greece in the 1970s.

A Greek-speaking AIS social worker then phoned Greece on my behalf to initiate contact with my mother. My mother was distressed when she realised what the phone call was about. She acknowledged that she’d had a baby who was adopted out in Melbourne but didn’t want any communication, because no one in her family knew about it – she’d kept this secret to herself her whole life. Yet, she did want to know if I was raised by good parents.

After much soul-searching, I asked AIS to reach out on my behalf to my maternal half-siblings. In October 2022, AIS succeeded in establishing direct contact with my maternal half-siblings, who got a tremendous shock. They did DNA tests and the results confirmed we were half-siblings.

Six weeks later, with the little bit of Greek I’d learned so far, I arrived in Athens accompanied by two girlfriends. By then my siblings had spoken to our mother and were arranging a lunch for us all to meet at our aunt’s home.

I met up with my siblings the day before the family lunch – they were so warm and happy to welcome me into the family. I was so excited to meet them – I felt like I was bouncing off the walls.

The next day, I was able to meet my mother, now in her eighties, at the lunch. I hugged her and immediately sensed how tense and worried she was. I think she was concerned I would be angry with her about giving me up. But I wasn’t. I began to cry, I felt so overwhelmed with emotion and like I’d been holding onto my tears till then.

We communicated a little through relatives translating for us. My mother said that every time she went to church, the first candle she lit was always for me. This made me realise my mother had always thought about and loved me.

Before I returned to Australia, I had another lunch with my family and could tell that my mother was much more relaxed and had warmed to me. I said I was learning Greek, which made her happy and she said she looked forward to speaking more with me on my next visit.

Regarding my natural father, I’d like to have that conversation with my mother, just the two of us, and I’m prepared to wait until I’ve learned Greek well enough to speak directly with her.

From family photos I’ve seen, I clearly resemble my maternal grandmother and my mother when we were of a similar age. Personality-wise, I’m just as sociable and passionate as my Greek half-siblings and we share so many interests – like football, history, current affairs and a love of reading non-fiction.

Looking forward

Over the next two years, I’m planning three more trips to Greece with my husband Bruce and son Patrick, so they can meet my maternal family, about which they’re all very keen. I’m working really hard at learning Greek and I hope during those trips I’ll be able to have numerous private conversations with my mother.

The purpose of me having written a book about my story called Greek Actually: Disentangling Adoption Deceptions, is to let people know that misidentification is a possibility, if you were adopted in the forced and closed adoption era – especially if you feel you don’t connect with the ‘natural’ family that your official adoption records lead you to. The official adoption records are important, but a DNA test doesn’t lie.

I’m now well along the healing process following the disturbing discovery that I was misidentified at birth and feeling that I was an imposter in my own life.

I plan to continue actively learning about and integrating Greek culture into my identity and have legally reclaimed and integrated my rightful pre-adoptive identity.

I believe that back when I was born and newborn adoptions were common, poor baby identification practices in busy maternity hospitals may have led to numerous baby misidentifications.

I may never know exactly how my misidentification happened but today, I just feel incredibly grateful – to finally know for sure who my mother is, to have met her, and to be able to have ongoing relationships with my maternal family members.

Overcoming challenges

Adult adoptees often experience trauma when trying to reconnect with their biological family. “The journey of searching for and then approaching your birth parents and extended birth family is complex, multi-layered and full of emotional challenges that are sometimes difficult to predict and navigate,” says PJ Gill, National Practice Leader for the Adoption Service, Oranga Tamariki. Gill says trauma related to adoption can be complex, intergenerational and lifelong, with adoptees facing the challenge of integrating their birth and adoptive identity throughout their lifetime.

According to Gill, acknowledging and having an awareness of trauma is often a first necessary step in the healing process. Solutions may include seeking professional support from an adoption-competent therapist; finding a peer-led support group that can provide the opportunity to connect with other adoptees and share lived experiences; and keeping a reflective journal, a potentially helpful tool to capture thoughts and feelings as they arise.

Before approaching birth family members, recognise that as an adoptee, you have the right to search. So many different emotions can arise during this time – understand that they are all valid and normal.

When stepping into a reunion, go at your own pace. Everyone is different and there is no one way of managing it.

Find out about other people’s experiences of reunion through podcasts and books, and have a support network in place.

While you may have had time to prepare, the family member may not have had the same opportunity. Be prepared for a number of different responses that could arise.


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