the Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade
by Ann Fessler
I just finished reading this harrowing, gut-wrenching, and emotional book. There were moments that I wanted to throw up, moments that I couldn’t stop crying, and moments that made me want to stand up and shout from the rooftops that no one should have to go through what these girls went through. In light of the recent SCOTUS decision, I’m seeing that the kinds of access that I grew up knowing was there are slowing being removed. There is no way that we can allow the kinds of inhumane treatment of women, of pregnant women, and of mothers & fathers that are outlined in this book.
Spoilers after the jump.
Ms. Fessler is an adoptee. She begins her book with an account of her own life. She ends with it as well. With these autobiographical stories bookending the narrative, she takes the reader on a journey of the personal history of adoption. Each chapter has a different theme (“Breaking the Silence” and “the Aftermath” for example) and each ends with two personal stories, bringing the statistics that she gives in the chapters chilling faces.
Fessler starts by breaking the reader out of their assumptions:
the assuption that these babies were unwanted by their mothers is ubiquitous. The act of relinquishment seemed to confirm this, since it is commonly believed to be a personal decision made by the mother based on her lack of interest or desire to parent‚Äîa decision that is independent of social, family, and economic pressures.
We can see this in our everyday speech about adoption: the mother “gives up” or “relinquishes” her child. This sounds very humane, very open, and very voluntary. Fessler changes her wording, then, to “surrender” which is a much less humane, much less voluntary act. And in the stories told by the mothers, each is clearly an act of surrender: to her parents, her society, her boyfriend. Often, the stories are even couched in terms of battle. The woman is fighting to maintain her sanity, her personhood, while those around her are forcing her into a situation she does not want to be in.
Fessler describes how her own experience of adoption is similar, in discussing her own family, she notes that her mother
was nineteen and from a big farm family of English and German descent. He[r father] was athletic, a college football player from a family of means. Their parents felt that this was no way to start a family.
There is no discussion about what parents want, only of what the grandparents want. Often the man involved ended up being a victim as well, though not in the same way. Many stories included indications that the man wanted to help raise his child but circumstances (often involving the grandparents) did not allow that to happen. One woman describes a discussion of this with her priest:
I said, “So you’re saying marriage isn’t even an option for me? Is that what you’re saying?” He said, “Unless you can find a good Catholic man who would be willing to adopt the child, no, we can’t accept your marriage.”
In this case, the young woman was relieved not to have to marry the father of her child, but in many other instances this was not the case.
One of the major themes of the personal stories that struck me again and again was that of lack of information. Few of these women had been educated about birth control and even fewer had access to it. Many had only a vague idea of what caused pregnancy. Some had no idea that they had even had sex until they got pregnant. To me, this is the most unconscionable aspects of the way that society was stacked against these women. Once pregnant, these women were sent to homes to wait out their pregnancies. There, they recieved ongoing schooling so that they could return to school (reintegration was also difficult for many: they often felt more adult than their peers and that the day-to-day of a high school or college student was inconsequential now that they had given birth). They were rarely given counseling to prepare them for the emotions they would experience upon birth and surrender. Even more, they were not given an explanation of what to expect when they gave birth. Given their lack of information before pregnancy, there ended up being an assumption on the part of those who worked with them (in addition to the fact that these women must have been loose) that they knew all they needed to about pregnancy and birth. The personal stories about these women, unprepared for sex to begin with and then left alone when giving birth, are truly heart-wrenching:
The night before I was scheduled to leave, my mother was starting to feel the effects of the impending separation and I had the very first, possibly the only, honest conversation I’d ever had with her. I felt safe enough, as we do when we’re feeling close, to ask her this question: “How do they get rid of the mark when they take the baby out?” I’d seen people in bathing suits and I could never tell if they’d had children. She stood there, three feet from me, with a look of horror on her face and said, “My God, Nancy, that baby comes out the same way it went in.” I said, “You have got to be kidding me.” She said, “No.”
One woman, following being shaved, given an enema, and being rectally examined to determine her dilation, later asked her sister where the baby had come out.
The ongoing theme of lack of information was truly stunning to me. Fessler notes it herself:
a recurring theme in the interviews is just how damaging secrets and withholding information can be, and not just to families. If parents‚Äîand society in general‚Äîhad been more realistic about the likelihood of young people engaging in sexual relations before marriage and had provided them with adequate information about pregnancy prevention and access to birth control, perhaps fewer unplanned pregnancies would have occurred in the first place. Obviously, no one would want to advocate early sexual activity among teenagers, but leaving young people uninformed only postpones and complicattes the problem‚Äîa problem that ultimately becomes one of unplanned pregnancy.
While it may not have been her intent when she wrote it, after having read it, I am now much stronger in my desire that all people have access to timely and correct information about birth control. As I listen to NPR each evening, there’s always at least one article about the erosion of birth control information or access. Reading this book, I was constantly reminded of a popular liberal bumper sticker: “If you cannot trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?” This book makes it clear that those who do not want to trust me with a choice have no compunction about removing my child as well. The conservative forces at work in keeping these women ashamed and subjugated are, unfortunately, still hard at work.
The way these women were treated during their labor was absolutely horrifying. Rarely were family members or, FSM forbid, the father of the child, allowed near the woman at this time (although there were some instances where they were present until the actual birth). Often there was no one the woman knew anywhere near. At other times, she was left completely alone. Some where physically separated from those giving birth to children within a marriage. One woman noted this:
Many times I’ve thought about the difference between the labors and deliveries of my two daughters. Such a difference, and it was only because I had a “Mrs.” in front of my name. That’s all. I was the same person. I was still with the same jerk guy. I was not rich. I still did not have a degree. The only thing that had changed was “Mrs.” That was it, and they treated me like a human being.
After the birth, many women were given the “option” to keep their child or surrender it. If they chose to keep it, they were presented with a bill for their stay at the maternity home and the hospital stay and fees for having given birth. Few of these women had jobs, though most hoped to be able to meet their debts (debts they did not know they would incur, nor did they choose to incur by choosing to go to the home). Theirs are the most harrowing stories: attempts to work up the money to buy their child back from “Catholic Charities” or another similarly named organization. Some were told after a few days that they had simply waited to long and their baby had already been given away to a family who deserved it.
Not surprisingly, these women had difficulty putting this experience behind them. Most were told that they would “forget” about it and go on to live a normal life, marrying and having other children. Those who could not forget had that added guilt to the mix: feeling that they were somehow “different” since they could not move on after having a child stolen from them. The coldness with which they were treated is disturbing to anyone who believes women have feelings. The ongoing emotional, physical, and psychological problems that they were left with are reminiscent of those who have been to war:
The symptoms described by the women I interviewed are precisely the same as those of the surrendering mothers chronicled in professional studies of their grief. Many women had experienced several‚Äîand some nearly all‚Äîof the following symptoms: depression; damaged self-esteem; persistent guilt, shame, and self-loathing over “giving away” their child; an enduring sense of emptiness and loss that is not erased by having other children; persistent loneliness or sadness; difficulty with intimacy, attachment, or emotional closeness; lack of trust; anger; severe headaches or physical illnesses that cannot be explained or diagnosed; and occasionally posttraumatic stress disorder, characterized by extreme anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, and nightmares.
Through telling their stories and meeting their surrendered children, these women are slowly starting to heal, for them, we can stop the cycle and recognize their rights as human beings and as mothers (not just “birth mothers”). Going forward, however, I firmly believe that the best way to honor their losses and horrible experiences is to keep it from happening again. As Fessler says,
These women were made to carry the full emotional weight of circumstances that were the inevitable consequence of a society that denied teenage sexuality, failed to hold young men equally responsible, withheld sex education and birth control from unmarried women, allowed few options if pregnancy occurred, and considered unmarried women unfit to be mothers.
We can stop denying that people have sex (at any age or state of attachment), we can provide information and services for those who do so that the choice never comes to abortion, adoption, or a difficult life. And for those for whom the choice does come to that, we can provide counselling and governmental subsidies. I’ve long believed that mothers should be treated as having a full time job by the government. Statistics continue to show that they do more work than fathers, whether they’re stay-at-home or not. The work of mothers should be respected: they’re in charge of the next generation. Some people are working on this, but it seems to me, as I look out over the headliens of the past few weeks, that women, and especially mothers are still lesser beings in the eyes of many men.