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Cover Story May 17, 2006


 

 

Most of us know someone who was adopted. Or, we may know someone who gave up their baby for adoption.

Most of us can only imagine the emotions that rest within those that are either adopted or allowed their children to be adopted out.

If we look back to the era running from 1945 to the early and mid 1970’s, we see a number of instances where young women not only suddenly found themselves pregnant but were very restricted in their options.

They were caught in an impossible position: a sexual revolution had heated up in the postwar years, birth control was tightly restricted, and abortion proved prohibitively expensive or life endangering. At the same time, a postwar economic boom brought millions of American families into the middle class, exerting its own pressures to conform to a model of family perfection. Caught in the middle, single pregnant women were shunned by family and friends, evicted from schools, sent away to maternity homes to have their children alone, and often treated with cold contempt by doctors, nurses, and clergy.

There were some 1.5 million of these young women who wound up being sent to homes for unwed mothers, usually some miles distant from their home towns and, after birth, were coerced into giving up their babies for adoption.

Those babies are grown up now. Some know the circumstances under which they were made available for adoption. Some don’t.

After Roe v. Wade (January 22, 1973) the social attitudes slowly began to change . . . though in some areas quite rapidly. Pregnant young ladies had other options.

Looking back at yesteryear and determining what happened, why, and where these young women wound up today, is what we focus on in this week’s cover story.

Artist and writer Ann Fessler has uncovered the hidden stories of many of these young women. Fessler's new book, "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade," is an astonishing oral history that brings to light the dark undercurrent of life in America's postwar middle class. Fessler's subjects emerge as the victims of a double standard that labeled them promiscuous while condoning the sexual adventures of their male counterparts.

May. 11, 2006 | "Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep [my] baby, or explained the options. I went to a 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."
-- Joyce

It was the 1960s and Joyce was going to beauty school in Florida when she realized she was pregnant. When her mother found out, Joyce says, she was "dumped" at a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Alabama. "It was an old, old, old house with big rooms," she remembers now. "[And] I had no control...

Joyce is just one of more than a million and a half women who were sent to maternity homes to surrender their children for adoption in the decades between World War II and the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. They were college freshman working their way through school with two jobs. They were tomboys, sorority girls and valedictorians. They were mothers and they were invisible.
Ann Fessler

At the same time, society began, more and more, to accept children born out of wedlock. Today, a child born out of wedlock does not carry anywhere near the stigma it once did. It hasn’t been a stigma in Scandinavia for years. The Scandinavians tend to look at a new baby as just that. A new baby. A joyful present to the world. Anymore, the term “illegitimate” is a cruel and totally inaccurate word to attach to such an event. I’ve never seen or known of an illegitimate baby. Every baby I’ve ever seen was legitimate. Whether they are crying, laughing, or cooing... those babies are legitimate. As in, for real.

I know several people who were adopted, one in particular I know quite well. Tracy (Ware) Ewing grew up in Escondido, presently lives in Oceanside. She is a flight attendant with United Airlines. She was born in Moscow, Idaho... where her biological mother had been sent to have her, just three weeks before Tracy was born.

Tracy sought to locate her biological parents both out of natural curiousity but also because the adoption papers had said that hemophilia ran in the family. She wanted to determine if this was fact or fiction as she wanted to have a baby but did not want to have a baby which had hemophilia.

“I started trying to locate my parents when I was 18 . . . but really got serious in my late 20’s when I was planning on having a baby. I found my biological mom when I was 30. Twelve years after starting the search. I didn’t have any Dates of Birth so the state department of social welfare couldn’t help me. Originally, they didn’t want to help at all but when they learned it concerned a health issue of hemophilia they agreed to provide me with information. We later learned that these heretofor sealed records had intentional inaccuracies. My biological mom’s parents had lied about my mom’s real date of birth so it’d be harder for me to track her. The person at the social welfare center was terrifc. Once the file was unsealed I had my biological mom’s name within the hour.

I located my mom.
She didn’t want to see me.

She never said why but she was adamant. I talked to her sister, my aunt, and my aunt indicated she’d love to meet me. However, she told me, “she’s a real bitch and doesn’t want to know anything about you. Her daughter just started college this semester, she (my mom) just lost her job . . . this is a bad time for her.”Fessler noted another difference. An increased demand for babies drove the movement to ‘persuade’ unwed pregnant mothers-to-be to surrender their child, when born.

“But,” I said, “this should be good news for her. Finding a daughter she must have always wondered about.”

My aunt Cindy said she’d stay in touch and she really wanted to meet me . . . but when my mom learned about it she created such a fuss that my aunt withdrew the offer. I never did meet her.

I did talk to my biolgical maternal grandmother, Betty Lou. My biological grandfather had died. The grandmother was willing to meet with me. She now lives in Savage, Minnesota.

My mom was from Ortonville, Minnesota, about three hours from Minneapolis. In a strange twist of fate my mom wound up working as a nurse in the delivery room of a hospital near Tracy, Minnesota. My aunt says my mom was, and still is, delusional.

Mom was six months pregnant before my grandparents learned of it. She was a tiny woman and didn’t show much. That’s why it was only three weeks before my birth that she was shipped off to Moscow, Idaho, the city of my birth.

Apparently my mom and dad wanted to get married and my dad’s grandmother, who was wealthy, wanted to buy them a house in Florida and have them move there, and keep me as their daughter. My mom’s parents objected so there was no marriage.

From what I gathered my mom was from a strong Lutheran family, my dad was from a Catholic family. Dad was raised by my grandmother, not his mother.

It turns out my dad was killed in a plane crash on February 28, 1985, when I was 20. He had been flying a Citabria, an acrobatic plane, and had a fatal accident. He had a 6 month old and 2 1/2 year old child and lived in Cottonwood, Arizona. I contacted his widow and told her . . . “I don’t want to upset you but I’m trying to contact my biological family.” She was just terrifc. She verified who I was and then said I was welcome to meet her and my half brothers. I went to Arizona and stayed a week. It was a very pleasant experience. That side of the family was just superb.

The end result? I found out that, in fact, there was no hemophilia in the family. There was a Vitamin K deficiency, but that’s been resolved. The adopton papers had been in error, in several areas.”

Today, Tracy Ewing has a healthy, nine year old daughter.

Tracy’s story is not unusual. Many pregnant women were spirited away under the pretense of an illness or a family vacation, the women -- many of them teenagers -- spent their pregnancies away from home and gave birth among strangers. While the maternity homes were billed as a quiet place for women to reflect on their futures, when it came time to sign adoption papers, most of the women Fessler interviewed said they felt intense pressure to relinquish their children. Persuaded by social workers who said they would never be able to provide as well for their babies as a stable couple would, ostracized by families who were shocked by their behavior, and insecure about their own strength and intelligence, most women did as they were told and tried to forget.

Fessler raises difficult questions in her magnificent book about reproductive freedom, women's rights and sex education that seem particularly relevant today as Roe v. Wade is threatened, pharmacists refuse to fill contraception prescriptions, and a conservative administration

promotes an abstinence only agenda in America's schools.

Fessler herself was an adopted child. It didn’t really bother her much until 1989 when she was
approached by a woman at an art gallery opening where Fessler was displaying some of her art work. “She said she thought I was the daughter she had given up for adoption decades before. I wasn't, but it was an amazing experience because at that point, I really hadn't thought too much about trying to find my own mother.

The woman told me a little about her story as a surrendering mother. She was sent to a maternity home and said she never felt like she made the decision to surrender her child, but that it was made for her. She asked if I had tried to contact my mother and when I told her that I hadn't, because I didn't want to bother her after all those years, the woman said, "She probably worries every single day about what's happened to you and whether you've had a good life." And that thought had just never occurred to me.

What floored me were the stories from the surrendering moms, mostly because I kept hearing the same things again and again -- that the mothers didn't feel like they had a choice. And I just kept thinking, why have I not heard these stories before?

Fessler goes on: “There was a lot of social pressure in the 1950s and 1960s -- the time period I focus on -- and that pressure was partly due to the tremendous rise in economic and social stability in many families after the war. The U.S had a booming economy, so families that had previously been thought of as working-class poor had moved up into the middle class and they didn't want to go back. Having a daughter who was pregnant and not married was -- and sometimes still is -- seen as a reflection of parenting skills, and someone who had a daughter who was pregnant was considered low-class. It was just thought that didn't happen in "good" families, though of course that was because the "good" families were the ones who could afford to cover it up by sending their daughters out of town.

Many of the women I spoke with talked about feeling betrayed because their mothers seemed more concerned about what the neighbors thought than about how they were coping, or what was going to happen to their grandchild.

The historical silence about maternity homes has helped perpetrate myths about what the mothers were like and what they wanted. The biggest one is

that any baby surrendered for adoption was willingly and perhaps even eagerly given up by the mother. And so the implication is that the women considered all their options -- that they had options -- and made a decision. When, in fact, most of the women I interviewed felt they didn't really make the decision at all. If they were high school age, their parents made the arrangements and said this is what is going to happen, we'll help you through this, but this is the only way.

A few of the older, college-age women did choose to go to the maternity home, because they were supposed to be places that would shelter you and give you time to think about your decision. But the statistics reveal the truth: If women went into a home, 80 percent would surrender their baby, because once they were there, the pressure to do so was tremendous. The women were told, "This is absolutely the best option. If you love your baby, you will give it up for adoption, so it can have two parents."

There was just no room for imagining other solutions at the time, at least in the middle class.

The second myth was that during the time period the book covers, anyone who got pregnant and sent away was considered a slut. It was an extremely hypocritical time sexually, because by the end of the 1960s something like 68 percent of women were having sex before age 20, but everybody lied about it. So all the girls who were having sex but didn't get caught could claim they were virgins, but the ones who got pregnant couldn't deny what they had done. So it was assumed they were either promiscuous or more sexually advanced than their peers, when most weren't. It turns out, actually, that among the women I interviewed, most became pregnant with their first sexual partner, some with their very first sexual experience, and many within only five sexual experiences. So most likely they got pregnant not because they were promiscuous, but because they were naive. They didn't know anything about sex; some didn't even know how babies were born. People just didn't talk about sex during the era; there was no sexual education, and in some families it simply never came up.

The third myth is that a woman who surrenders her child doesn't suffer a loss. The families and the people who ran the maternity homes told the women that they'd go to the hospital and have the baby and the baby would be taken away and life would go back to normal -- as though they just had their appendix removed. The idea was that they could make up a lie about where they'd been for the past four months and no one in the community would be the wiser -- it would be like it never happened.

Fessler noted another difference. An increased demand for babies drove the movement to ‘persuade’ unwed pregnant mothers-to-be to surrender their child, when born.

After the war thousands of adoptive families were clamoring for children. The numbers were staggering; at the time, for every child that was placed, there were 10 families still waiting for a baby. So all these lovely, established young couples were coming to maternity-home social workers hoping to adopt and that put the workers in a complicated position. On the one hand, they had a 17-year-old in front of them, who was sort of in a daze, and her baby's not even real to her yet. She's pregnant, but to her, pregnancy is a problem. Everyone is telling her she's bad and that she's shamed her family.

And so you find that more often than not, the social worker ends up agreeing with the girl's family that the best-case scenario would be to get her baby placed with one of the many fine families waiting to adopt. And I don't want to make it sound like I'm down on adoptive families, because, in fact, they were told they were adopting children who were unwanted. The problem was that all the parties were kept apart from one another, and it was a paternalistic system that told these women, "We know what's best for you."

The message from social workers was that the baby would be so much better off with an adoptive family than with the surrendering mother because she was already a screw-up -- she'd gotten pregnant, she wasn't married, so how good a mother could she be?

She was seen as unfit because she was unmarried, though, of course, at the time, loads and loads of women got pregnant and then got married so they could give birth six or seven months after the wedding. In those cases, all was forgiven.

Fessler was asked if she had interviewed any of the women who, upon giving birth, wanted to change their minds and keep their baby.

Quite a few women told me they tried to change their minds, to convince their parents to give them more time to find another solution. The terrible thing was that in some cases they were simply told it was too late. But legally that wasn't true; there was a window of time in which mothers were allowed to change their minds. They were, in fact, often lied to by the social workers.

Remember, too, this was before abortion was legalized, which doesn't mean that there weren't abortions happening, but there were lots and lots of botched ones. And most girls didn't even know who to ask about it, or where to find one. So certainly, some women might haven chosen to terminate their pregnancies, but many of the women I interviewed were actually not pro-choice.

These women suffer tremendously from an ongoing sense of worry about their children -- a feeling that some studies have equated with having a loved one who is missing in action. It's this idea that your child is alive, is out there in the world, so are you going to run into her on the street one day?

They told me how the shame and secrecy affected their self-esteem, how they couldn't relax and were always afraid of being found out. Gradually women became more aware that they weren't alone. But there are still many, many women who are very distraught and lonely.

A lot of things will never change for the women in my book; their lives are set. But one thing their stories can offer is a window into a time period. And what they show us are the consequences of a sexually repressive, paternalistic, conservative society. And there are many people in the country right now who would like to go back there.

Abstinence-only sex education doesn't allow for even a mention of birth control -- the line is that the only way not to get pregnant is not to have sex. And certainly, that's true and abstinence should be taught. But to focus solely on that is to also be willfully blind to the fact that women and men are both sexual beings, and the onus should not always be on the women to stop the sexual advances of the man. It's a couple having sexual relations. But I think we still have this caveman notion that a man can go around spreading his seed, making conquests, and the woman is supposed to be the one with restraint who holds him back. And if you look at the world in general, outside the U.S., it's quite clear that both sexually and politically women still do not have equal say or power. Look at the Supreme Court right now. We don't know yet what effect their decisions will have on the country, but just the imbalance of representation indicates that on some level we still value men's opinions more, or believe that men can make more rational decisions. So if nothing else, I hope that by uncovering this hidden little part of women's history, I can help build a bridge between two generations, and to show young people today the importance of having a voice, of being participants in their own lives.

Sources: "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade," , Fessler, Ann.

Salon.com: The children they gave away - By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Interview with Tracy Ware Ewing, May 13, 2006.


 

 

 

 

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