Cbr11bingo True Story
This book was recommended to me by a friend who was adopted and it is an amazing and powerful book. It’s the kind of book that breaks your heart and makes you angry. When we talk of “choice” and women, we generally think of the choice to have an abortion, but this book reveals a different kind of choice that was denied to countless young women and girls in the decades between WWII and Roe v. Wade — the choice to keep a baby out of wedlock. Ann Fessler, an art professor who is also an adoptee, has developed art and video installations devoted to adoption and to the voices of the women left out of the picture — the young women and girls who gave birth and were told by parents, social workers, organized religion and society at large that they were incapable of raising and didn’t deserve to have their babies. The coercion and deception that forced these young mothers to surrender their children to “better” parents left them bereft, depressed, alone and convinced that they had to maintain the secret of their motherhood at all costs. Through scores of interviews, Fessler reveals women, now in their 60s and older, who have never forgotten their newborns or moved on, as they had been told they would do. They have struggled with self-worth, personal relationships, and the decision to track down their surrendered children, who are now adults themselves.
Most of the book is devoted to the stories of these women, told in their own words, and many of them share very similar stories. They were young, some in high school, some in college in the 1960s; they knew little to nothing about sex, since there was such a stigma attached to pre-marital sex; birth control was virtually non-existent and they knew nothing at all about childbirth. Some had steady boyfriends whom they thought they would marry. Some were victims of what we would now call date rape. They came from “good” families, often church-going, with a reputation to maintain. When their pregnancies came to light, it was as if the world shifted. Their “loving” parents were ashamed, angry and adamant that their daughters would NEVER reveal what they had done. Instead, girls were pulled from school and sent away to homes for unwed mothers. Abruptly separated from their family and friends, these young women spent months together awaiting childbirth, not knowing each others’ real names (it was forbidden to reveal that information), not getting classes to prepare for childbirth or counseling to prepare for surrendering their babies for adoption. It was a given that the girls would not keep their own babies. Parents, social workers, nuns, judges — any and all “responsible adults” involved in these women’s lives told them that adoption was the only way out. Otherwise their children would be “bastards” and socially ostracized, while so many wonderful married couples were ready and eager to have a baby of their own. The women interviewed frequently expressed their shame and guilt over what they had done. They believed that they had to do what their parents and others told them because they had already caused so much trouble. They had no one in their corner to help them fight to keep their babies.
The mothers’ descriptions of childbirth and its aftermath is the stuff of dystopian fiction. When these girls went into labor, they were dropped off at the hospital. No one accompanied them inside and no one was there to support them through childbirth. They were shaved and given enemas, sometimes tied to their beds, sometimes left alone in labor for hours. Once their babies were born, they were usually taken away. Some only got to spend a very short time with their newborn, a few days or so. Understandably, many of the girls did not want to relinquish their children. They felt a bond as any mother would after nine months of pregnancy. Social workers swooped in quickly though to get them to sign the papers surrendering their newborns. If a girl hesitated or indicated she might have changed her mind, they would remind her of all the expenses she had incurred and told her that she would have to reimburse the state for all of it. The fact that their parents backed up the social workers and clearly did not want their daughters bringing home their babies made it nearly impossible for a young woman to do otherwise. They kept telling these girls that the baby would be in better hands with adoption and that the girls could just pick up with their former lives. Yet, this is not what happened. Most of these women describe falling into deep, lifelong depression. Some struggled with substance abuse. Some wanted to immediately marry and have children while others resolved to never have children. Later those who tried to find their children discovered that letters and other information that they had left with social workers to be placed in files should their children ever decide to find them was never in fact placed in the files.
In the 1970s and after, groups for adopted children formed to support their search for their biological parents and groups for mothers who surrendered their children formed as well. Several obstacles stood in the way of reunification, such as poor record keeping and privacy laws that varied state by state. One of the biggest obstacles though remained the mothers’ shame and embarrassment over having a child out of wedlock and surrendering the baby. Even as grown women with grown children, they feared being shamed and ostracized by their parents, siblings, spouses and children. They also feared the reaction they might face from the children who were raised to believe that their mothers didn’t want them. The stories of reunification are amazing to read. Equally impressive are the stories of these women who worked through their pain, depression and anger to find their children and make their voices heard after decades of being silent.
This book really knocked me for a loop. I was born in the 1960s and was raised Catholic. All through my childhood and teen years, I heard how young women who got pregnant should hurry up and marry (not a great idea) or just give their babies up for adoption rather than choose abortion — as if nine months of pregnancy and childbirth are not life-changing events, as if such a young woman couldn’t or wouldn’t bond with her baby. Fessler writes that in the years prior to WWII, it was common for single young women who went to maternity homes to be supported in such a way that they could keep their children. They were encouraged to keep their children. The strict and oppressive morals of the post-war period destroyed this system and harmed so many young women! The callousness of these girls’ parents was also startling. I’m trying to imagine just dropping my high schooler off at a home and not seeing her for months while she went through pregnancy and birth. And then never speaking of it again. Ever. It’s not normal. It’s damaging and sick. And then there’s the legal system. Social workers and judges were pretty much complicit in keeping these mothers ignorant of their rights, and they outright lied to them in order to get them to surrender their babies. One can understand the rage these women felt later when they learned how so many people had denied them their rights in order to take their babies away.
This book was published in 2006 and therefore does not address the number of reunifications that must be occurring thanks to genetic testing. It is, I think, a must read for those who care about women’s rights and not repeating the egregious mistakes of our recent past. The prim and uptight morality of the 1950s and 1960s is dangerous. Sex education and birth control information should not be withheld from young people, and we as a nation need to provide better supports to mothers and children, especially if we call ourselves “pro-life.” Reading this book as we see news story after news story about families being separated at the border adds another layer of horror to what we as a nation are doing. It reminds me that our history is full of examples of barbaric behavior toward women and minorities, usually centered on destroying families (eg. slavery and the treatment of Native Americans). We’ve made progress as a nation, but we have to recognize and own up to our errors. We are in danger of moving backward instead of forward.