In the 1950’s, ‘60’s and early 1970’s, thousands of young women in the U.S. gave their babies up for adoption. But here’s what I didn’t know about adoption in that era: that a large number of the women who surrendered their babies were victims of coercion, pressured by their families, their clergy, and their social workers (in other words, by the very people who were supposed to be helping them) into surrendering their children against their will.
Ann Fessler, who is herself an adoptee, interviewed hundreds of women who gave babies up during those years. The tales they tell are heart-rending, of being whisked away to a home for wayward girls in the middle of the night, of delivering their babies alone and unprepared in hospitals where the nurses told them, when they complained of labor pain, that “they should have thought of that nine months ago.” In many cases these young women were shamed and threatened with disownment by their families if they didn’t give their babies up, they were told by social workers (often falsely) that if they didn’t surrender their babies they would have to repay the maternity home and the hospital thousands of dollars for their time there. They were denied information about support services that were available to them. They were threatened with eternal damnation by their clergy. They were in many cases (but not all) abandoned by their baby’s father, who suffered no repercussions for his part in the pregnancy. They were also frequently lied to about the adoptive couple who would receive their baby; for example Fessler’s birth mother was told that the baby would be adopted by a factory owner, when in fact her adoptive father was a factory worker.
It’s like Fessler has revealed a tacit conspiracy of social workers, clergy, and unenlightened parents that worked to keep girls compliant, and provided babies for infertile couples. This conspiracy thrived in an era when conformity was a must, and when options for women (educational and professional) were few. Some of the adults who were complicit believed they were doing so in the best interests of the girls. Fessler describes deathbed apologies from parents who forced their daughters to give their babies up. But some of the adults must have understood the ramifications of what they were doing. That is the part I found most galling.
The 1950’s and ‘60’s were a different world for girls. I was shocked to read about how voiceless these girls were, how at the mercy they were of their parents and other authority figures. While many of the women in this book acknowledge that they were ill-equipped to care for a child, they all wished they had been given a chance to do so. All of them say that if they had had some support and acceptance from their families and from society that they felt they could have been good mothers, and that none of their subsequent achievements (achievements that would have been impossible if they not given their babies up) made up for the loss of that child. They all agree that being forced to give their babies up was the single most devastating thing that ever happened to them. Many suffered from long term depression and substance abuse, and while some went on to marry and have more children, many found themselves unable to sustain productive relationships ever again.
This is a sad sad book. I cried for these women many times. It was hard to read each woman’s story, but I made myself do it. Here is a quote from a woman named Karen that illustrates feelings that are expressed in this book:
All of our rights were abused. Ignored and abused. The rights that people take for granted today, we were denied. We didn’t know because we were young, and we trusted our parents, and we trusted authority. We trusted our elders and we were taught to respect them. They would tell us what was best. So we figured if that’s what was best, then that was what we needed to do. They’ve injured and damaged millions of people.
…I’m sure there are women who suppress the experience, but I don’t think it ever goes away. There is not a day since I was fifteen years old that I haven’t thought about him [her child]. I will live with this for the rest of my life. Criminals sometimes get a life sentence and that’s what I feel like I got. I think that’s what people don’t understand. The expectation is that you will get over it. I will never have peace. I will never have peace.
I know this is a topic about which people have strong feelings. I’m not trying to begin a dialogue about the pros and cons of adoption. I’m just writing about what I learned from this book, which is, sometimes you can think a thing is simple, when it’s not.
(Book 11, 2008)