The Girls Who Went Away, part 2 – the effects of adoption on baby boomer birth mothers
6. In the years from 1945 to 1973, closed adoption was virtually a given for most unwed young women.
Prior to 1945, illegitimate children were usually given to a family member or someone the family knew—either to be raised as their own, or until the parent/s could manage. There were also some homes for unwed mothers, but they functioned as places where the mothers could get temporary help. Beginning around 1945, however, closed adoption, usually organized by third parties, became the standard.
Closed adoption was partially driven by the fact that there were many infertile or older married couples who were more than willing to adopt a child, but who wanted assurance that the baby would be irrevocably theirs.
Another reason closed adoption was pushed was because of the rise in social importance of the nuclear family after World War II—two parents and one or more children. The theory was that through adoption, the baby, who was illegitimate through no fault of its own, wouldn’t be branded for life as a bastard. The babies would be part of a nuclear family—with a father and mother who very much wanted to raise one or more children.
Another big factor was that at this time there were few, if any, programs to assist single, unwed mothers. So even those who desperately wanted to keep their babies knew it was virtually impossible without support from family or friends.
7. Little thought was given to the possible long-term effects of adoption for the birth mother or the child.
In her book, Ann says, “Despite the fact that numerous small studies in the fields of clinical social work, nursing, family studies, psychology, and psychiatry carried out in the United States and much larger studies completed in Australia concur that ‘relinquishing mothers are at risk for long-term physical, psychological, and social repercussions,’ and even though millions of women have surrendered, there is still no widely accepted therapeutic model for counseling mothers who have lost their children to adoption. Many women are still not able to find adequate therapy. In one study, 50 per cent of the mothers participating reported ongoing pain and suffering as a result of their loss. If this percentage holds true for the entire population of relinquishing mothers, millions of women today may be experiencing long-term problems resulting from the relinquishment, a great many undiagnosed and untreated.” P. 222
Of course, not only birth mothers but adoptive parents and adoptees might also seek counseling for issues related to adoption. Yet Ann adds that “in one survey only 27 percent of practicing clinical psychologist felt either ‘well-prepared’ or ‘very well-prepared’ to work with adoption issues…. About half of these professionals had no graduate coursework that included adoption content. A similar absence of adoption research and study has been found in the field of sociology and anthropology, and in studies of marriage and the family.” P. 223
(Note: Since this book was published in 2006, I’m really hoping things have changed! Please comment if you can address this.)
8. Many birth mothers were ordered not to talk about their baby. Some continued to keep their secret even from their own families.
Ann says, “The burden of shame that was thrust upon unwed mothers in the postwar period has made it difficult for them to share their secret. The shame and secrecy that are still attached to adoptions that took place during this time period have caused tremendous misunderstanding on the part of the public and adoptees. The lack of information about the conditions and complex forces that contribute to relinquishment has left adoptees speculating about the scenario that led to their adoption. As a result, many have misplaced anger or have been haunted by the fact that they were ‘given away’ by their own mother.” P. 290
“If readers scratch between the surface of their own family history, they may find a story of unwed pregnancy.… One friend’s 79-year-old mother confessed to her daughter—as the mother lay on a gurney about to be wheeled into surgery—that the person the daughter knew as her uncle was really her half brother. The mother had a baby just before she married, and the baby was raised by her parents as their own. My friend’s father would not allow his wife to bring ‘that bastard’ into their home. The mother had been asked to choose between her child and her future husband…. The effects of the ongoing secrecy and silence strained relationships between family members, who could not speak of the elephant in the room that had affected all of them.” P. 295
Their experiences also affected many women’s later relationships and their desire to have more children. While some rushed to get married and have another baby as quickly as possible, others couldn’t allow themselves the right to have a second baby after giving one away.
Since the bulk of the book is made up of stories from real women and girls—stories about how they got pregnant, what happened afterwards, and what happened to them later on—I thought it would be a good idea to give you a small sample of the many stories that touched me.
“There wasn’t much worse than a girl could do. They almost treated you like you had committed murder or something.” –Toni, p.9
“If you weren’t married, your child was a bastard and those terms were used. I think I’m like many other women who thought, ‘It may kill me to do this, but my baby is going to have what everybody keeps saying is best for him.’ It’s not because the child wasn’t wanted. There would have been nothing more wonderful than to come home with my baby. –Glory, p.11
“Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep the baby, or explained the options. I went to the maternity home, I was going to have the baby, they were going to take it, and I was going to go home. I was not allowed to keep the baby. I would have been disowned. I don’t even know if they had programs to help women and children back then. I don’t know what was available. I was made to feel very ashamed of the situation that ‘I had created for myself’ and for my mother and for my family and friends, so I felt all those avenues were closed.” –Joyce I, p.11-12
“’You can’t be kissing boys. You can’t be letting anybody touch you. Sex is dirty. Sex is bad.’ It was always bad things. Always taboo. It was never healthy, never, never a healthy talk. My mother was twenty-four with four kids. Probably that’s why sex was bad. We did not have sex education in school. I mean, I graduated high school in ’64, and sex was not discussed. You were not supposed to have sex until you were married and that was it. My goodness. You just didn’t talk about sex. It was all negative, it only got you in trouble. She was right about that, though, when you think about it. She was right. I should’ve listen to her.” –Carolyn I, P. 38-39
“My mother turned to look at me and her lip and her chin were kind of quivering and she said, ‘I don’t know how this happened. We took you to church.’ I just looked at her and said, ‘I wasn’t thinking about church.’” –Linda III, P. 73
“The father of my child never came to see me…. He knew that I was going away and he knew the phone number. I wrote to him and I think I called him once or twice when I first got there. He never responded, so I just let it alone.” –Claudia, P.59
“When I told him I was pregnant, he asked me what the heck I thought he should do. And the next thing I knew he was gone.” –Lynne, P. 68
“I had been this girl who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t do anything wrong. I had taken care of my kid brothers and sisters, and everybody wanted their daughters to be with me. Now, when I walked down the street, all the parents made their daughters cross the street.” –Margaret, P. 72
“The staff were very condescending and very judgmental. They would say, “Your child will be better off without you. You’re doing the right thing. There’s a loving family out there.’ And I was thinking, ‘Well, how come I can’t be a loving mother?’” –Cathy II, P. 118
“They took me into the labor room and I labored for hours and hours. They put me in a room, turned off the light, closed the door, and left me to labor by myself. I just wanted somebody there with me because I was so frightened. I was young and I was in so much pain. I remember praying to God: ‘Please let this be over. I‘m sorry, I’ll never do this again.’ You barter all these things, being Catholic—or being human actually. I was allowed to hold her just once. They didn’t want you to bond at all with the baby. Some women chose not to see their babies. I just could never imagine that. I wanted to see that face. I‘ll never forget it as long as I live. You never forget that face.” –Carolyn I, P. 176
“Before I went into that place I was always very happy, liked everybody, would talk to everybody, was a class officer in high school, a cheerleader. I was that kind of a person. I came out of there a different person. It changed me. It really change my personality. I got very sad. I was very withdrawn. I went back to school after that happened and everybody would say to me, ‘What’s your problem? What’s the matter with you? Did someone die in your family?’ Well, having a child, giving it up for adoption is like having a death in the family. The only difference is you can’t publicly be sad; you gotta be sad by yourself. I think it hardened me. I was really nasty to people. I was mad at the world. I was mad at my parents, I was mad at everybody, even if they had nothing to do with it.” –Cathy II, P. 209
“Afterward I was very introverted. I could not have a close friend because I felt like such a fraud. How could I consider myself a close friend without them knowing about this? And, of course, I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.” –Connie III, P. 208-209
“My mother and I never spoke of my daughter again. Not one word ever, ever again.” –Christine, P. 118
“I never felt like I gave my baby away. I always felt like my daughter was taken from me.” –Pollie, P.12
“I was scared for my baby all those years. I never slept through the night. I never made it through a night without wondering how she was.” –Susan II, P.119
“I couldn’t stand to be around children, couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want to look at babies or be around babies. If my friends had babies, I vanished. It was too painful. It was just too much. I would pooh-pooh it, you know, like it was an undesirable thing to do. That was my self-defense…. I had my tubes tied. I couldn’t allow myself to have a… family of my own. So there’s a huge thing that is irretrievably gone. I will never have that experience of being a mother. I gave that up when I gave her away.” –Nancy III, P. 217
“You go on with your life but you know out there in the world is a piece of you floating around. I’m not a religious person, but I would pray to trees or stars, or the moon, or whoever is in control, to please make her safe.” –Pamela I , P. 213
“I suffered this alone for twenty-one years so everyone around me would be comfortable: don’t talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable. And I didn’t…. For twenty-one years I wasn’t allowed to speak about it, but I have my own voice now.” –Nancy I, P. 53
“All through my pregnancy, when I was seeing the counselor at the agency she encouraged, ‘Don’t get attached. Don’t think of it as your baby.’ After my daughter found me, that was one of the first thing she asked me. She said, ‘Do you think you bonded with me?’ How could I not? How can you carry a child for nine months and not bond? It’s not humanly possible.” –Connie III, P. 177
“An adopted girl had posted to one of the Internet lists and she was just expressing such bitterness and anger about being given away and being discarded like trash. I felt so touched I was compelled to write her a private email She was talking about the shame that she felt about being discarded. From what she said, her mother and I were about the same age, so I shared some of my experience with her. It’s really sad. It’s sad all the way around.” –Joyce I, P. 291
“Giving up my son was a seminal moment in my life. People will say, ‘Get over it.’ I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘Aren’t you ever going to get over it?’ Never. You never get over this. Men often go to the military and fight in wars and they never really get over what they see. This is like one of those huge tragedies in your life. That’s how I look at it, as a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because it didn’t have to happen. They said, ‘You can’t raise the baby alone.’ But no one expects a widow to give up her baby because her husband dies, do they? No. It’s punitive. That’s it in a nutshell. You don’t deserve the baby. I think that parents whose children get into trouble should be the village for their family. It’s as simple as that. When you’ve experienced this, you realize that every social problem is like this. People don’t see themselves in the other person. I think this experience does make you much more aware. It comes from having other people not empathize with you. You understand what it is to be marginalized.” –Maggie, P. 227
A final word from me: While I was reading this book, I lost count of the many times I cried or wanted to hit somebody. I could go on and on about what I learned from it, and I’d like to, but I’d probably end up writing a book myself, so I’ll stop here. But I will address some of the other things I’ve learned when I review the next book I’m reading.
I highly recommend this book as required reading for birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptees, family members of birth mothers or adoptees, and anyone who, in whatever capacity, who knows or works with one of the above. Check out your library as well as local or online stores.