March 05, 2007

The Girls Who Went Away

Last night as my TiVo® recorded the Cold Case episode about the maternity homes of the 1950s and '60s, I climbed into bed to finish the true-life version told by Ann Fessler in "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade."

I am not a gifted enough writer to describe how heartbreaking and disturbing this book is. Its stories have settled themselves deep within my heart. Fessler provides an excellent overview of the history of American maternity homes and the social trends which contributed to an incredible increase in the number of children surrendered for adoption in the decades following World War II. The true soul of the book, however, is in the first-person stories of the women who placed children for adoption during that period. Fessler does a fabulous job of stepping back and letting their stories speak for themselves.

And, boy, do the stories speak. They yell and scream and cry and shout and tear at you with the truth of what it is like to be told you do not deserve to raise your own child. It explodes the persistent myth that first parents can just walk away after relinquishing and return to life as if the pregnancy had never happened. "Signing the papers" does nothing to sever a mother's connection to her child.

One of the dominant themes in the women's stories is the feeling that they didn't have a choice. Though on the suface it may have seemed that they willingly signed the papers, in reality they had been left with no other real options by their families, boyfriends, or social workers. Many times women were lied to when they asked about their legal rights, or threatened with expensive bills for the maternity home if they refused to surrender their child.

It's tempting to say that things are different now. Contraceptives and abortion are legally available. Single parenting is more accepted. There is not as much secrecy in adoption. But so much has not changed. As long as sexually active women--but not their partners--are called "sluts," as long as "welfare mom" is still a political slur, as long as financial stability is considered an indicator of parenting potential, as long as a pregnant teenager is still something to gossip about, many first mothers will feel that they did not have a choice. Even when great care is taken to eliminate potentially coersive tactics used by agencies/lawyers/adoptive parents/etc., there is still the weight of society bearing down on them. As an adoptive parent, it's difficult to express how uneasy that makes me.

(by Ann Fessler, The Penguin Press, 2006)

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