Falkirk woman’s search for her mum inspires her to write her story

Elaine Henderson with her book, Believe, about her life in foster care and search to find her mum
Elaine Henderson with her book, Believe, about her life in foster care and search to find her mum

Having grown up surrounded by secrets, Elaine Henderson is finally telling her story - and she’s the first to admit that it’s no fairy tale.

Now a mother-of-two herself, Elaine’s story of the search to find out where she came from is often heartbreaking and painfully honest.

Elaine as a child in Blairvadach Children's Home in Helensburgh

Elaine as a child in Blairvadach Children's Home in Helensburgh

Her newly published memoir, Believe, is the story of a child growing up in care who knew nothing about her background; who had no idea she had brothers and sisters; who didn’t even know that the mother she longed to be reunited with had been dead for many years.

It is the story of a woman who had never seen her mum’s face - even in a photograph.

It’s also the story of someone the care system failed - who was abused in many ways by people who shredded her confidence and left her with deep scars, emotional and physical.

But Elaine’s book, which had its launch in Callendar House on Saturday, December 1, is also the portrait of a woman tenaciously putting together any tiny fragments of information she could uncover to painstakingly create a picture of who she is and where she comes from.

And it’s a story of a woman coming to terms with her past and stepping out the shadows that all the secrecy had cast.

“It’s been a long, complex journey full of complex emotions, ” she said.

“I feel that I started in darkness and moved into shadows and now I’m fully in the light.”

Written over ten years, Elaine courageously recorded her journey from that scared, questioning adolescent who was left reeling when the only person she’d ever called mum, suddenly informed her that she was fostered - not adopted’.

That set her on an emotional roller-coaster which soon dispelled any notion that finding out about her birth mother would simply be a matter of asking.

However, as time went on, it became more and more important that she got some answers - especially when she had children of her own.

Elaine, who lives in Lionthorn and is a support for learning assistant had no idea how difficult it would be.

“I went to research my past but social services gave me practically nothing.” Elaine remembers.

“I thought I’d be presented with a file and all the answers would be inside it.

“But I soon realised if I wanted to find out anything I would have to do it myself!”

Over many years, she put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Elaine discovered that her own mum had herself been adopted as a baby - although she had to go to Glasgow Sheriff Court to be allowed to see the papers.

Finally getting permission, she discovered something that was a game-changer: her mother’s real name.

Named Irene Cullen by her new family, Elaine’s mum was actually born Elizabeth Hay.

From then, Elaine was able to find out that her mother had had eight children who all lived in care at some point.

She also found that her mother had taken her own life.

Elaine tracked down where her mother was buried - but she was shocked to find the grave completely unmarked.

“It was December 5 - a really bleak, horrible day and everything just seemed awful, ” she remembers.

“I broke my heart because it was so depressing and I vowed that I would get my mum a gravestone.

But like everything else, Elaine had to fight for it.

It was a five-year journey, which involved her tracking down one of the sisters she’d never known, and it took patience and determination.

“There seems to be an unknown force inside driving me on, ” is how she describes her search.

“In the end, I got there. I did it - and it was a beautiful moment.”

Elaine’s story might sound like something from a film, but she soon learned that the script had more twists and turns than any film plot.

“I wanted the movies!” she said. “I wanted the fairy tale happy ending - but the reality isn’t like that.”

What she did learn, however, was that whenever she hit a stumbling block or a brick wall, she’d find another, unexpected way to push forward.

“Sometimes I would be elated and on the ceiling and sometimes completely crushed, my heart has been broken time and time again.

“But I do believe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger - I’m evidence of that.”

In her book, she recounts how she tracked down her siblings and met a whole family who knew nothing about her in England.

She also talks about her father - another difficult relationship she soon accepted she was better off without.

But she also found kindness and understanding in unexpected places - particularly in her social worker, Jill, who became her confidante and to whom the book is dedicated.

She was also thrilled when her search put her in touch with women who had looked after her as a baby in a children’s home - and who, incredibly had kept photographs of Elaine as a child.

Elaine is acutely aware of how difficult her journey has been for her own family and fiercely proud of her children, now 18 and 16, who have been so supportive.

“It was difficult for my husband and my family but we worked through it together, ” she said.

The front cover of her book was designed by Elaine’s children as a tribute to their grandmother to be put on the headstone it meant so much to Elaine to be able to place.

The flower, which represents Elizabeth, is in Elaine’s favourite colour; the rainbow her eight children.

Writing the book helped her come to terms with the complex, often overwhelming emotions that were unleashed at every step.

“I didn’t know anything about writing when I started, ” Elaine admits.

“I joined Falkirk Writers Circle and then I did a course on writing at Strathclyde University and I learned so much.

“I’m also lucky that my husband is good with words. He has helped me so much - he made some very good suggestions.”

The title comes from the belief that kept her going during the darkest of days.

“I believe in myself and I believe that somewhere out there someone has a photo of my mother, ” Elaine said.

While she knows her journey will never really end, she’s now ready to move on.

She says telling friends and colleagues has made things “a hundred times better” and she talks to a counsellor when she has trigger’ moments and finds things difficult.

In particular, writing her story has enabled her to confront the fear that haunted her after a miserable experience in foster care.

She has begun to accept that she has nothing to be ashamed of and last year she eventually found the courage to go to the police although they are unable to take it forward because it’s a historical offence.

“I can’t wave a magic wand and make it unhappen - I just have to keep moving forward, ” she said.

“I kept my story as a secret for so long but now it’s not a secret, ” she says. “I’m honest with myself and with people around me.”

“This is who I am. This is my story and I choose to own it.”

It may not be a fairy tale - but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a happy ending.”

‘Believe’ by Elaine Henderson is available from Far From the Madding Crowd bookshop in Linlithgow; Inkspot and Silverleaf Booksellers in Bo’ness; and Aye-Aye Book, CCA Centre, Glasgow. It can also be ordered from Amazon.