Thursday, November 6, 2008

What I'm Reading Now-The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler-This book was heartbreaking to read. The author and her mother were both adopted, and after a chance encounter with a woman who had surrendered a daughter for adoption around the same time that Fessler was adopted, Fessler began working on an autobiographical project about her adoption, and during her presentations she would invite others to tell their stories of adoption. From this grew her book. She began to realize that many of the stereotypes that people had about women who had given up babies during the post-WWII era were false. Most of these women were woefully uneducated about sex and birth control. They just had no idea. Some of them knew how pregnancy occurs, some did not. Most of the time their boyfriends assured them that it wouldn't happen to them. These were not tramps who were out sleeping with everyone they met on the street; often they were in committed relationships and deeply in love. These were not frivolous women who saw adoption as an easy fix to a mistake. These were women (often girls) who lived in a time when being an unwed mother was about the worst thing you could be, perhaps only slightly higher on the social scale of acceptability than axe-murderer and Communist. Maybe.

According to Fessler, poor women tended to keep their illegitimate babies more frequently than middle class women while rich women came from families who were able to pay a doctor to quietly take care of the situation. The middle class girls who found themselves in trouble didn't have the money to obtain abortions, which were still illegal at the time, and their parents absolutely couldn't risk the shame and scandal of having an unwed pregnant daughter.

The solution was to send these girls away to a maternity home where they would finish out their pregnancies, deliver their babies, and surrender them for adoption. The girls were usually so horrified about all the trouble they had caused their families that they felt they were in no position to argue about this solution, nor did it even occur to many of them to do so. At the homes they were generally counseled about what a wonderful thing they were doing for all these married people who wanted babies and couldn't have them and what a wonderful thing they were doing for their babies who deserved so much better than they could provide. They were counseled on how to give up their babies, but they were rarely informed that keeping them was a legal option as well. They didn't know that keeping their babies was an option in most cases, so they did as they were told and signed the papers, all the time being told that in a few years they would get married, have other children and forget all about this. A few did inform the homes that they wanted to keep their children, but they were told that if they did so they would then be responsible for all of their medical and boarding expenses. Most of them simply did not have the money to do this, and often their families threatened to disown them if they decided to keep their babies. They were not counseled about any financial aid that might have been available to them. So, most of them played the role of the dutiful daughter, did as they were told, and tried their best to forget about their babies.

Not surprisingly, none of the women in this book managed to forget their first-borns. They lived every day with the pain of having given up their children and not knowing what kind of lives they had. They couldn't talk about it-many of their friends and family never even knew what had happened, although I'm sure many suspected that they hadn't really gone away to help take care of their sick grandmothers during their senior year. It just wasn't something that was talked about. Many of these women went 30 years or more never telling anybody about the baby they had been forced to surrender so long ago. It was a loss, and their pain was never even acknowledged much less dealt with. To make matters worse, the fathers of their children were often held completely unaccountable. Sometimes the fathers were interested in staying with the mothers and even raising the child, but often their parents would talk them out of it. While a young woman could be kicked out of school for being pregnant, no such punishment existed for the young men who had gotten them that way.

Some of the women in this book spoke of depression and mysterious physical ailments that they could never really figure out but that disappeared once they broke their silence and/or found their grown children. Depression seems to be a very common ailment among women from about my age through the baby boomer generation, and I'm wondering now if this might be a big reason for it. Dealing with the emotional pain that these women spoke of in isolation and without the skills to deal with it or even acknowledge it certainly must have contributed to countless cases of depression through the years.

I think this book would be extremely helpful for anyone who has suffered silently through the pain of a forced adoption-just knowing that other women out there have gone through the same thing has got to be a huge relief. Even women who willingly gave up their children, for whatever reason, could probably benefit from this book, as I'm sure many of them still wonder about their children. I think this could also be helpful for children who have been adopted and have suffered with abandonment issues, feeling like their own mothers didn't even want them all these years. So often the mothers DID want them, desperately, but they just didn't know that it was even an option. Like I said, this book was heartbreaking for me to read, but I'm glad I read it.

This book focused on the aftermath of surrendering a child for adoption which occurred in large part because abortions were illegal at the time and also because abortion went against many families' religious beliefs. I would be interested in seeing a similar follow-up of mothers who aborted children, both before and after it became legal, either by choice or because that's what their parents decided would be best for them. I'm sure many of them found themselves in similar situations-young, single, still dependent upon their parents, and scared to death. I'm sure many of them also lived with this as a secret that they were not allowed to talk about, but I think the big difference would be that they never got to hold, feed, and care for their babies after they were born as did most of the mothers who surrendered their children. I would like to know if they felt the same way as the mothers who were forced to give up their children, if they felt they had any choice in the matter or not, and if they have the same sense of loss. One of the things that many of the mothers in the book said was difficult was that they didn't know if their children were still alive or not. They lived everyday wondering about their children's fate. In the case of abortion, the fate of the child is obvious, but does that make the sense of loss any less or just different?


Anonymous said...

Added to my to-read list. This sounds heartbreaking but worth the time.

Heather J. said...

Woah, this sounds like a heartbreaking book. Thanks for the great review - I'd never heard of this one before.

Meryl said...

Wow--I'm adding this one to my "to-read" list. Something you don't really think about, but tragic all the same.

Dreamybee said...

I hope you all enjoy it...enjoy's an odd word for this type of book, but you know what I mean. It was never anything I had really thought about before either, so I'm really glad I read it.

Jenny said...

Does this author deal with the race issue at all -- were African-American women forced into giving up their children more, or less frequently than white women? Just wondering about how that intersects. This book DOES sound fascinating and I am betting it is still relevant today, sadly.

Dreamybee said...

Hi Jenny,

I can't recall for sure. It seems like I remember reading that this was mainly a white, middle-class phenomenon, but I could be making that up. If the author did mention it, it was only in passing. I'd have to go back and look now, but I think all the women profiled in the book were white.

I'm sure this book is still relevant today, but hopefully less and less as time goes on.