Tags: 1960s, adoption, mothers, teenage pregnancy, trauma, unconditional love
A mother’s unconditional love for her child, denied systemically, but springing forth in all its glory despite numerous institutional/institutionalized attempts to quell it – this is the story told over and over in The Girls Who Went Away: The hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade.*
And it has moved me deeply.
The book is about pregnant teens from the 60s who were sent to institutional homes for unwed mothers to have their babies quietly, and then pressured (or downright forced) to put them up for adoption. At this time, out of wedlock, teenage pregnancies were an unspeakable shame to the family and simply anathema to the social order (though in another decade that would change completely) – and this was seen as the only possible course of action: go far away, have the baby, and then forget it ever happened, move on. When the mother returned home, the subjects of her pregnancy and the birth were so taboo that many were not allowed to speak of it (or their feelings about the experience) ever again.
Until now. This book is about these mothers, and what’s more – it is told by them. The author (Ann Fessler) interviewed over 100 birth mothers, and includes many of their first person retellings of the pregnancy, birth, and the lifelong impact these events had for them. Fessler also shares her own personal story – she is one of the children that was “given up” during this time period, and it is breathtaking to follow her questioning of the dominant adoption story, ultimately finding deeper meaning and her own biological mother’s love.
The dominant frame story in our culture about teen birth mothers being that they:
- Aren’t prepared/ready for their babies and don’t have the capacity to take care of them
- Don’t want their babies
But this doesn’t begin to express the complicated emotions and stories of birth mothers. It is truly powerful to hear their retellings of the unbreakable bond, the love, they carried for their surrendered children throughout their lives – children they carried for nine months and then perhaps never even saw again. Nearly every woman reports being told that she would “forget,” move on with her life to have other children and not remember the relinquished child. But they could not forget. Take this letter, which Fessler received after the publication of the first edition, for example:
I went out today at lunch to buy your book, hoping it will give me some insight as to what my mother went through. She died a few years ago on her 70th birthday. When she was in the hospital, delirious and hallucinating from a serious infection, I learned that my mother was one of the women you write about. She spent hours crying and begging, “Bring me my baby.” When she regained consciousness she did not recall telling anything but I spoke with her about it and she did—in very few words – confirm her ordeal. She was weak and very sick. I was never able to get more information before she passed.
In that moment at the hospital, her entire life made sense to me. She was a woman who had a sense of sadness and longing her whole life. It burdens me beyond comprehension to think of her sadness and despair and of her never being able to speak of it or share it with anyone.
Many years later, on her deathbed, this woman was calling for that long lost child, who she had not even spoken of to her family! Ah, love is amazing.
A few excerpts
The love the new mother felt for the child, despite her best efforts to follow the social worker’s advice and not form an attachment:
It’s funny. The whole time I was carrying my daughter, I told myself that I wasn’t her real mother. I really believed that. I knew that I was carrying her but, you know, that was the party line, that’s what they told you. The social workers said that you were carrying the child for someone else. And I really went along with that in my head. I guess in a way I was less tormented because most birth mothers didn’t have that kind of detachment. They knew that they were their child’s mother. They knew what they were losing, and I was just totally out to lunch in that department. Until my daughter was born. I realized at that moment, that’s not the way it works. She was my daughter. I realized that fully, in every way, she was my daughter.
A young mother questions the trope that the child is given away to someone who can care for him better:
I want to make the point that he was taken from me. I never gave him away. He was never meant to be a gift. If anything, the gift was that I thought I gave him the parents he needed. They were the gift. They were the gift to him. My son was not a gift.
Mothers reflect on the role of trained professionals and institutions in their stories:
I wasn’t supposed to see him [my son] at all. They said, “You shouldn’t see him, because you’re going to forget and have other children.” They said, “Write down on this side of the paper what you can give your baby. Write down on the other side what the adoptive parents have to offer.” … They said, “Well, just picture what he’s going to look like. You know, he’ll not have the nice clothes that the other children are going to have and on the playground, they’ll call him a bastard.” And I believed that. I remember writing down they had money, they had a father, they had a house, and they had clothes and food. And on my side I only put down love. That’s all I did have.
What’s shocking to me is sitting with other birth mothers and hearing them tell the same story. I thought, “My God, there must have been a textbook.” You looked up how to get babies away from their mother, and this is how to do it. There must have been, because we were all told the same thing. Even the story about the playground. I’ve heard it from other people and I’m thinking, “Oh my God. It was a script. It affected me so much, and here it was just a script.”
I feel as though I was preyed upon by this system, by these people that I was surrounded by. Not some nebulous thing but real human beings, real people had a hand in taking my son away… I was not able to ever mourn my loss of him or be able to express how sad I was. Nobody ever said, “Oh, I’m sorry…”
All of that came to a head when I realized that this wasn’t a good thing. It was in everyone else’s best interests. It was the convenient, expedient thing to do at the time, but it wasn’t really in our best interests. It was not a win-win situation. In my opinion, it was a loss for him, too. He didn’t get to know his mother and father. We didn’t get to know our son, and be with our son, which we should rightfully have been able to do. The winners were the … social workers who got to do their job in the way that they thought they should do it. We lost and we lost big. I mean, we lost the most precious thing in our lives that ever was or ever will be – our baby. Nothing can ever make up for that.
The feeling of worthlessness instilled traumatically in the mother via this experience:
Then they [caseworkers] would say things about the baby. It’s always “the baby,” never “your baby.” And they were not talking about adoption except to say, “This experience will end. You will forget that you were here. You will forget that you went through this. It will all be in the past. Given time, it will fade. You will get over it. You know what you did was wrong? You know that you are not really worthy of keeping your child? You can’t provide a home for that child. You can’t provide anything that child needs. That child needs a mother and a father, and the things that they can give that child.”
I remember feeling almost not deserving of having or keeping my child, but also feeling I don’t have the right to be a mom. I don’t have the right to be a mother. So we really heard that on almost a daily basis [at the group home]…
And on the indescribable joy of finding the relinquished child again, after all those years:
I got to the agency and they put me in this little room, an interview room, and the social worker said, “It will probably be about ten minutes and then I’ll come to the door and I’ll knock and I’ll let her [your daughter] in.” So I sat there waiting. And I was totally shut down. I mean, devoid of any worry, of any fear, of anything. And I remember thinking to myself, “You know what, this is it. This is it. You get one shot at feeling this feeling. You can put it away, you can shut it down, but you know what, this moment will never come again and if you stay shut down you’re not going to show your daughter who you really are and what you’re really about.” It was a physical thing I had to do. I mean, I physically had to get in the moment. And I did. I mean, when the knock on the door came my daughter got to see who I really am. Not a fake, not a phony, but somebody who really was in that moment for her. The social worker opened the door and she said, “I want you to meet your mom. This is Sue. Sue, this is your daughter.” And this beautiful young woman walked through the door.
We looked at each other. I mean, we were both stunned, because she looks just like me. We were totally stunned. We hugged each other, that wonderful sustaining hug, and then we leaned back and the tears were streaming and we started to laugh. I mean, how could you not laugh? It was like looking at yourself.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s just no replacement for the not-of-this-world, truly unconditional love that a parent has for his/her children.
A few more goodies:
Ann Fessler, the author, is interviewed by Diane Rehm, along with two birth mothers who contributed their stories to the book.
An excerpt (one woman’s story, from beginning to end) from the book.
* The mention of “Roe vs. Wade” in the title is more to imply that abortion was illegal and therefore not an option during this time period, than to indicate an ideological stance. The author expresses no opinion about the abortion issue, which I greatly appreciate. This book is not about proving a point politically; it is about letting these women – who have been silenced for so long – tell their stories. Hurrah for survivor voices!