Lunch together was my mother’s idea. I was 18 and had returned home briefly between trips to Israel and America on a gap year before university. How lovely, I thought. Perhaps this was a chance for us to get to know one another better, because although she hadn’t been a bad mother, our relationship was not especially close.
Now I was 18, and an adult, maybe we could forge that enviable bond I’d seen with other girls and their mothers.
But Mum had something else entirely on her mind. She had something to tell me … and didn’t she just.
‘I think it’s time you learned about your father, and how you came to be …’ she said.
I was a ‘love child’ (although I’m not sure that she used that exact phrase). The product of an extra-marital affair between her and my father — a dentist with a long-term partner and four children — when she worked for him as a dental nurse at his practice in Surrey. The affair had broken up her marriage, but my father had remained with his family. They knew about me; I’m guessing my father must have owned up and had been forgiven, but my half-siblings had wanted nothing to do with me. I, in turn, was told nothing about them or my father’s other woman. Until that fateful day.
I’d grown up assuming — like many children from broken homes — that Mum and Dad had simply had a relationship that didn’t work out. I still saw him, sporadically, after-all. What I didn’t know was that I was a dirty little secret. Something to be hushed up; not mentioned.
And just like that, there it was. A grenade thrown into my life from which I’ve never recovered. You may wonder why I’ve chosen to share such a deeply painful and personal story now. I’m a 56-year-old mother of two with a successful career as a business consultant.
I was a ‘love child’ (although I’m not sure that she used that exact phrase). The product of an extra-marital affair between her and my father
The term ‘love child’ sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? It has such romantic connotations — a child of passion and intrigue. Yet the great irony is that very often children who are the product of an affair or illicit liaison actually don’t feel loved at all.
Time may have softened the opprobrium that used to be poured on those born — and women who bore — children out of wedlock, but the truth is, the stigma hasn’t really gone away.
After my mother dropped her bombshell, I believed I was unloveable, inferior or somehow sullied, that my entire existence was a thing to be regretted and with that came an all-consuming sense of shame.
Sharing my experience so publicly is part of the process of finally freeing myself from that.
My thoughts were brought into acute focus this week with the news that Steve Bing, the father of Liz Hurley’s son Damian, jumped to his death from a Los Angeles apartment block.
I dread to think what the emotional fallout will be for 18-year-old Damian. From what I can tell, Ms Hurley has done a remarkable job raising her son but the fact that Bing wanted nothing to do with his child for much of the boy’s life, and even forced them to endure the ignominy of a DNA test to prove paternity, is something Damian has grown up with.
The poor boy wrote on his Instagram page that he is experiencing a ‘strange and confusing time’. Yes, you are Damian, and sadly that isn’t going to end any time soon.
So why did my mother keep her shameful secret for so long — even from me?
I believe she thought she was protecting me. She’d thought the time was right to tell me because I was 18 and old enough to cope with it.
In reality, there couldn’t have been a worse time for her to offload her secrets and I began my adult life feeling utterly traumatised, which led to me having a breakdown.
Suddenly, all those years I’d spent with a nagging unease about my family life made sense. It explained why my biological father had wafted in and out of our lives — meetings that were probably conducted surreptitiously — and my mother’s sense of detachment and sadness.
Why she was never keen to talk about their past. Why, whenever I asked questions she’d dodge them or get upset.
Until that moment I’d believed that my father had loved me, in his own way. Yet suddenly I knew there were other children he’d loved more. His ‘real’ children, if you like. I was absolutely devastated.
So this is what I know: my parents began their affair in the summer of 1963 when she was 37, and married with a son — my older half brother — and my father was in his early 50s, with a partner and four children. There was another child too, a much older one he’d fathered while at university and whose mother he’d then married before moving on to have a new family.
Katherine Locke is pictured near her home in Bridport, Dorset, with her mother Muriel and father Michael in 1968
When my mother discovered she was pregnant, her own marriage ended and she fled to her older sister’s home in London. For all the liberation in the Sixties, I imagine there was a lot of shame around the circumstances of her pregnancy.
She gave birth to me in March 1964 and shortly afterwards moved us down to Devon, where my father lived with his family. I don’t know the sequence of events, but I imagine he’d moved there first and my mother followed, such was her longing for him to make an ‘honest’ woman of her.
At least I was an acknowledged love child — he never denied I was his. His name is on my birth certificate and I have his surname. He was an incredibly charismatic man, a bon viveur and raconteur who flashed his wealth around, paying for me to go to private school and to have pony and swimming lessons, something I now perceive as him throwing money at his problem — me.
I have a memory of washing the car with him once and of him taking me to school a couple of times. But he was never around to read bedtime stories or for any of the important moments such as my birthdays or awards presentations at school. There were no family holidays or day trips to parks or the beach.
My mother, though rather glamorous, wore her sadness for all to see. I rarely heard her laughing and she was deeply unhappy, although as a child I had no idea why. Now, I suspect it’s because my father chose to be with his other family, and her life had been ruined. But she remained desperate for him to marry her.
Our relationship was difficult. She was a loving Mum, making clothes for me and ensuring I had lovely birthday parties, but there was something amiss.
Then, when I was nine my father became very ill with lung cancer. I remember sitting in the kitchen of my aunt’s house in London in July 1974 when she and my mother told me that he’d died. It was horrendous. My mother was bereft and I had a massive, spontaneous nosebleed brought on by shock.
Neither of us went to his funeral, and I couldn’t understand why when not being able to say goodbye was so painful. I assume now that his ‘real’ family had arranged it and didn’t inform my mother of the details. We weren’t welcome.
Unbeknown to her, my father had married the mother of his four children the previous November, which meant that when he died everything was left to them — and the financial support on which we relied, vanished overnight.
All we had was a tiny cottage in Wales that my father had bought but had put in my mother’s name, and £10 in her pocket. We spiralled into deep poverty and she got a job as an auxilliary nurse in a local care home, working long shifts, while I stayed at home, unable to afford the bus fare to my now state school for a while.
She eventually met someone else, a very kind man, whom she married just as I was leaving home, and remained with him for 15 years until he died. It sounds odd, but although it wasn’t a terribly happy marriage, it was still the happiest relationship she’d had.
Katherine is pictured with her father Michael in 1965. Katherine was told she was a ‘love child’ when she was 18
Somehow we muddled through. A rather precocious child, I did well at school and had won a place at university.
Then suddenly Mum dropped her bombshell and finally put me in the picture. The crux of my distress has never been that I was a love child as such, but the secrets, lies, half truths and shame this situation threw up.
Had I grown up in full knowledge of the facts, the other children and other woman, it would have been a strange situation, but it would have been our situation and I’d have coped with it.
Soon after that life-changing conversation with my mother, I went travelling in America as planned, unable to cope with her neediness when I was so unwell myself.
There’s a John Lennon quote that sums up my mental state at the time: ‘The pain is so big, you feel nothing at all.’
Back from America, I started university where I observed other students partying and having fun while I found life a struggle and didn’t understand my place in the world.
Mental ill-health was taboo back then, and there weren’t the resources within the NHS to help me. I tried to talk to friends but it was more painful for me to share the story only for it to mean nothing to my confidantes, so I kept it to myself.
It’s unsurprising that I’ve had an appalling record with relationships, lurching from one emotionally unavailable man to the next. I was three months pregnant with my daughter, who’s now 28, when her father left me after a couple of years together.
The cycle continued with me raising her as a single parent, although she’s always had contact with him. Becoming a mother only exacerbated my bewilderment at how my own parents had broken my trust.
I was a mess, desperate to be loved and to be in a normal, loving, stable relationship, but I didn’t have the tools to make that happen.
I met my current partner 17 years ago and we had our son, who’s now 14, and settled into family life in Dorset. But it hasn’t been without its problems and marriage has eluded me, although I’ve always longed for that commitment.
Curiosity about my half siblings only surfaced eight years ago by which time I felt in a more stable place with a family of my own. Social media made it easy to track down the eldest son of my father’s other family as we share the same surname.
We met, just once, at my house. But it wasn’t a cathartic moment for either of us. On the contrary. There’s a lot of fantasy about family members meeting for the first time, but the reality for us was very different.
He was told about me when I was a baby and he was a teenager and had vowed never to have anything to do with me — something he felt guilty about in adulthood.
I quickly realised that pursuing a relationship with my half siblings would have been detrimental to my state of mind. We haven’t kept in touch.
When my mother died 15 years ago, I was sad, of course, but my first thought was, ‘who am I going to be now?’ Suddenly, unshackled from her neediness, I didn’t feel so entrenched in the past.
Through years of counselling I’ve experienced a certain amount of emotional healing and have realised that the shame wasn’t mine, it belonged to my parents.
Because only now, almost 40 years after Mum dropped her bombshell, am I finally starting to cast off the shame and stigma of being a love child that’s blighted my adult life.
I’ve wanted to tell my story for a long time and I hope that by doing so now, perhaps I’ll finally start to feel truly free of the past.
AS TOLD TO SADIE NICHOLAS
- Katherine has set up an email address intended for anyone who’s had a similar experience of being a love child and wants to get in touch — firstname.lastname@example.org