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The Girls Who Went Away

January 20, 2012

I spent the last few days devouring Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade. I read the book breathless, with my heart in my stomach, in the way that you read books that aren’t about you but are. Fessler interviewed birth mothers who surrendered children for adoption in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s; much of the book is in their own words, which Fessler puts in the context of American culture, myths and mores, at the time. Nearly all of the women interviewed gave up their babies because they had no other choice. Their parents told them to, as did their teachers, priests, nuns, social workers, and nurses. Despite what they were told, that they would “forget” their babies, that they would go on with their lives as if nothing happened, secure in the knowledge that they had given better parents a gift, they didn’t forget. The shame and the secrecy went on for years, decades, eating away at them, intensifying their longing.

I don’t know many details about my birth mother’s story, how she felt when she first learned she was pregnant, what her pregnancy was like, how long she was able to hide it, how she was treated by the doctors and nurses and social workers she met along the way, what it was like for her at the Florence Crittenton Anchorage in Chicago, how she spent those days in the hospital before we were taken from her. Part of me is afraid to ask her these questions for fear of hurting her or returning her to such a frightening, lonely time. Part of me wants to know so that my heart can break for her, with her, as it surely would, my own sorrow standing as some sort of apology, not for causing her pain but for being an unwitting part of it. But it’s her story to tell. Whether she decides to tell that story herself one day, to tell it through me, or to keep it still, it’s her choice.

Fessler’s book makes me sad, but it also makes me angry. I’m outraged by injustices, by the dominant narrative of good mother versus bad mother that directed so much of the advice and counsel the birth mothers were given. I think of the lies that they were told in order to keep that narrative intact. They were not good mothers, could not be good mothers. The good mothers? They were the ones with husbands waiting in the adoption agencies, the ones who would take the babies home and give them better lives.

Last summer in Indiana, we were driving around looking at the homes where my birth parents raised their family. As I sat in the car, my birth mother in the front, my mother in the back seat beside me, I was suddenly overcome with the complexity of what I stood for to these two smart, beautiful, kind women, both good mothers. I embodied the deepest sorrow and the deepest joy. As I read Fessler’s book, I wanted those women to keep their babies. I wanted them not to be forced to surrender them. I wanted them not to be told lies. I wanted society–and everybody in their communities who said and did otherwise–to find a way to make it possible for them to keep those babies if they wanted to keep those babies. I am breathing hard as I read that book because I realize that my happy life was made possible by an enormous sacrifice, by great love, by God Himself, yes, all of those things–but by a whole lot of injustice, too.

Since I was old enough to know such things, I understood the shame and secrecy that shrouded unwed pregnancy at the time that I was born, but because I honored my birth mother for what she did, I never dwelled much on it. I, too, thought it was possible that she could simply go on with her life, get married, have more children, put it all behind her. Still, I wondered if she thought about us on our birthday. I wondered when she fingered the scar on her belly where the doctor pulled us out from her, if our faces suddenly appeared before her. I wondered if she wondered, where we were, what became of us, if we were happy, safe, well.

And then I had my first child. I pushed that beautiful boy into the world, I counted his fingers and toes, I kissed his little nose, I pulled him to my breast, a fierce longing and love welling inside me. When the nurse placed him in my arms–because he was mine and I was keeping him and he was going home with me and there was no doubt about any of that–I burst into tears, for my father who would never see his grandson, and for her. For the first time in my life, I understood something that I don’t need her story, her words, to tell me.

Of course she remembered. Of course she never forgot.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2012 3:57 pm

    Judy, thank you for your comment. I often wonder how the people involved in those womens homes coped with the losses they were seeing.

  2. Helen permalink
    February 19, 2012 5:11 pm

    Judy, you are most insightful and I really appreciate your comments. Makes me realize how caring you are and how difficult these both sad & happy occasions must have been for you, seeing the agony of the birth mothers, next to the exreme happiness of the adoptive parents! I have a dear friend who has chosen to have an “open” adoption (years ago) and both sets of parents are allowed to be a part of her child’s life. Would it be O.K. with you, Jenny, if I shared your story with her?

    • jes97003 permalink*
      February 19, 2012 6:33 pm

      Yes, absolutely, share with anyone you wish, Mrs. S. Thank you!

  3. jamieplus6 permalink
    January 26, 2012 4:42 pm

    That book is a staple in my home and in my thoughts. So glad that you read it. I wonder if my birthmom has read it. 😦 Love, me

    • jes97003 permalink*
      January 26, 2012 4:51 pm

      Jamie, you’ve likely seen the information about the film? http://agirllikeher.com/ Just finished reading Jean Strauss’ Birthright, which you’ve likely also read! I’m just catching up. 🙂

  4. January 21, 2012 4:04 am

    I remember girls in high school (in the 60’s) who would suddenly be gone – the explanation being that they were off visiting an aunt in California or something equally as odd. It was a very hard time to be pregnant and not be married. Glad we are beyond that. I loved your post. Beautifully written — thanks. Jan Wilberg http://www.redswrap.wordpress.com

  5. January 20, 2012 6:15 pm

    I read this book shortly after I read Jackie’s book and it made me so sad. The girls who I worked with who gave up their babies for adoption were the bravest people I knew. Even all these years later I remember some of the birth dates of babies born at places like Florence Crittenton where the staff gave the babies their names. Some of these young women were in such shock when they signed papers to give up their children that it’s hard to think that they even knew what they were doing. I remember trying to offer alternatives, but sadly at that time, there were few alternatives. Society made it almost impossible for single mothers to be accepted, to continue school, to find work. Families felt disgraced and wanted to keep everything a secret. The babies’ fathers had no rights and often were not told about the pregnancy.While there was rejoicing for the adoptive family, I had nightmares about the birth mothers, most of whom disappeared after giving up rights to their babies. I wish now that Christian agencies, like the one which employed me would have spent more resources on education–teaching people to love and support women and children who so needed encouragement and resources in order to raise their little ones if that was their desire. Thank you, Jenny for spreading the word about this book. Although it is hard to read, it contains lessons that we should never forget.

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