The cassette tape I received on my 16th birthday meant more to me than any present I’d ever been given.
It was a recording made by my birth mum Karen, who I hadn’t seen since I was eight months old, explaining why she had given me away.
The parents who raised me, Paul and Sue, were always very upfront about my adoption but they brought me up as if we were their own flesh and blood.
I never wanted for anything, but as I grew older I couldn’t help but wonder about the birth Mum I never knew.
Paul and Sue told me that she had wild, curly hair – just like mine – and a tattoo of her favourite band Genesis.
Apart from an old story book that she’d given me that was all I knew of her. So when the cassette tape was handed to me it felt like I’d been handed the missing piece of a puzzle.
“Karen didn’t want us to play it to you until your 16th birthday”, said Sue.
Then she showed me the old tape before placing it in the cassette player. With shaking hands I picked up a set of headphones and pressed down on the play button.
My heart was racing.
My first thought was that her voice sounded just like mine.
“I tried, in the time that I had you darling, to bring you up as best I could,” she began.
“I was very proud of you when you were first born and I still maintain you were the prettiest baby in the ward.”
She went on to apologise for the circumstances and how she wished everything could have been different.
Falling pregnant at 19 with no-one to turn to had been hard and she struggled to cope.
“You were very much wanted Kate,” she told me before the tape clicked and came to an end.
Sue broke the silence by joining me on the sofa and wrapping her arms around me.
In my heart I’d always known that Karen didn’t want to give me up. It was just a gut feeling I’d always carried but after listening to the tape I knew it for sure. I had to find her.
Over the next few months I listened to the tape over and over again until it almost wore thin.
A year later, at the age of 17, I felt ready to begin my search and I made some enquiries with social services.
“I’m afraid you have to be 18 to see your adoption file,” they told me.
But when I came of age I discovered that because it had been a closed adoption any information I needed I’d have to find for myself.
With only Karen’s maiden name ‘Irons’ to go on, I trawled through genealogy sites and phone-books but always found myself at a dead-end.
Not long before my twentieth birthday I had a breakthrough. I found a Karen Irons, who once lived not far from my home town of Kent, and married in 1994.
‘This must be her,’ I thought to myself.
But after that initial glimmer of hope I couldn’t any more information about Karen Cullens, as she was now known. It was as though she had just disappeared.
A few months later I was flicking through the pages of a women’s magazine when I read a story about a girl who was reunited with her birth father using a private detective.
The firm’s email address was listed at the bottom. Convinced I had nothing to lose, I messaged them asking for help.
A few days later a reply came from the detective saying that they were so moved by my story that they’d do some research for free.
In less than a month they came back with an address for my maternal grandmother.
Devastatingly, she refused to have any contact with me. She said she didn’t know where Karen was and knew nothing about me.
Later I discovered that this wasn’t the case. She had seen me after the birth but had fallen out with Karen in recent years and they weren’t speaking.
But at the time I was crushed and took her refusal to mean that Karen didn’t want to meet me either.
‘She’ll have a new life now’, I thought. Some people just don’t want to be found.
After that set back I stopped searching and went on to have a family of my own.
I met my partner Mike Willcock, 28, in 2010, and went on to have three daughters Fayth, 10, Natalie, nine and Sophie, two.
By October 2013 ten years had passed since my grandmother turned me away and I felt strong enough to try pick up the search for my birth mum again.
This time I had Mike to help me and together we spent hours searching on social network sites for any trace of Karen Cullens.
One afternoon Mike called out to me from the laptop: “I have found a woman called Suzie Cullens and she looks exactly like you”, he said.
I rushed over to to take a look.
“She really does look like me!” I gasped.
Suzie Cullen was living in Middlesborough and was friends with a woman called ‘Karen Irons.”
“Oh my god!” I said to Mike.
“So that’s my sister and my mum!” After 25 years of searching I’d finally found them.
I was shaking with fright but I managed to type a heartfelt message to Karen, now 46.
“I don’t know how to say this. I’ve already broken down three times,” I began.
“But I am Karen’s Kate. I’ve been searching for you for years.”
Karen’s partner Tony wrote back on her behalf asking for my date of birth and middle name which was Maureen – the same as my grandmother.
“Your mum has waited years for this. She loves you and never thought this day would come,” came the reply.
After our initial conversation I plucked up the courage to call Karen. We were on the phone for five hours straight and continued speaking every day for weeks until she agreed to meet me in person.
She had moved up to to Middlesborough and my dad agreed to drive us both up there to see her.
On the way Mum called to see how we were getting on and she sounded so excited, “How are you feeling Kate?’ she asked.
“Nervous.” I replied. My stomach was in knots. It all started to get quite real.
There was a shopping precinct near Karen’s house and I asked Dad to pull over.
“I just need five minutes to compose myself.” I said.
As I stepped out of the car I saw a tall man approaching, heading straight for the shops. He was looking directly at me as if he was concentrating very hard on my face.
As he got closer he dropped the change he was carrying all over the floor. I could see he was shaking so much.
I bent down to help him pick up his coins when I caught sight of his face.
“Tony?” I asked.
“Kate?” he replied.
We both started laughing. It really broke the ice. He recognised me straight away from my profile picture and resemblance to Karen and offered to walk Dad and I back to the house with him.
When we arrived my half-sister Suzie, 22, greeted us at the front door.
“Look who I ran into at the shops” Tony joked as Suzie squealed with joy and gave me a big hug.
She was three inches taller than me but other than that we looked just the same.
I followed her into the living room and there she was in the flesh – by birth mum sat on the sofa with a cup of tea.
“My baby has come home!” she cried and we both burst into tears.
Suzie, Tony and my dad, who I had never seen cry before, all started to bawl with us.
Karen and I sat and held on to each for about 45 minutes.
We talked non-stop as she kept squeezing my knee as if to check I was really there.
When it was time to leave we were both in tears again but Karen and I promised each other we’d see each other again as soon as we could.
Since then we’ve kept in touch by speaking on the phone for hours at a time.
After missing out on so much I’m determined to make the most of our time together now.
I’ll always think of Paul and Sue as my real mum and dad. They raised me and have been there with me through it all and I can’t thank them enough for how supportive they’ve been over my search for Karen.
Now it feels like I have gained an extra parent and my family finally feels complete.