Mothers Forced to Surrender Their Babies

I just finished reading 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, and I have to say I’m impressed.

I love reading books that challenge me, that show me something I haven’t seen before. Like a lot of people (I would assume, anyway), I thought that girls who got pregnant and “went away” and “gave” their babies away were relieved to have that “burden” off their hands. I assumed that giving up their babies for adoption would give them a better life and give their babies a better life.

The writer herself also surprised me, because I’m prejudiced against artist types. I tend to expect artists to be dumb, but Ann Fessler is an intelligent, engaging, coherent, and logical writer. The only beef I have with the book is the title (perhaps the fault of the publisher and not Fessler)—in the decades before Roe v. Wade seems to imply that these women should have had the right to an abortion. I happen to personally believe they should have that right, but all the evidence in the book (both Fessler’s examination of historical statistics and the women’s personal narratives) suggests that these women would more than anything have wanted either proper sex education (birth control… even just the “facts of life” about how one gets pregnant) or single motherhood (the option to keep the baby). Only one person mentioned abortion and said it was traumatic but less traumatic than having your baby forcibly taken away from you.

The book made me realize women can get extremely attached to their babies even when they haven’t seen them, being forced to give away your baby affects your entire life, and people who forced women to give up their babies were generally well-intentioned or themselves felt powerless to social forces (fear of being ostracized, being labeled a communist, losing a job). I was amazed at how little sex education there was in the 50s (and even 60s), how the shame of getting knocked up and the shame of giving up your baby can haunt you decades later, how women desperately loved their babies even when those babies were the result of rape. Most of all, I was amazed at how much I sympathized with these women when I heard their stories. Yes, you could have called a lot of them stupid or ignorant, but if you have any heart when reading their stories, you have to at least understand how they feel and feel for them.

I don’t know what it is about adoption triad (birth parents, adoptee, adoptive parents) stories, but I get all choked up inside about them. I had the same reaction to the Bonnie Hunt movie Loggerheads.

6 thoughts on “Mothers Forced to Surrender Their Babies”

  1. Thanks for this extremely insightful and understanding review of this book. I am one of the ‘women’ (then an 18-19 year old girl) whose story is in the book and find it very refreshing to read a review written by someone who did not live this particular twist in the road of life but who is open-minded and empathetic to what it was like for those of us who did.

    I can tell you that Ms Fessler limited her study to women who gave birth before Roe v Wade precisely because that is when ‘choice’ was supposed to be an option that was absent before that time. Although those of us in the book did love our babies (and still do as the adults they are now) speaking for myself, I will say that both sex education, access to birth control and ‘choice’ would have definitely made all the difference in the world in my life and ultimately the life of the child I had taken from me…he would not have existed at all. In spite of what appears to be a huge dichotomy, I am overjoyed now that he is alive and well and that we have a wonderful 16 year reunion relationship…but had I had any kid of ‘choice’ in any of what happened so many years ago, my life would have been completely different than it was. And indeed, having my baby taken from me by means of extortion or any other means would have been the last thing I would have ever chosen for my life…or his.
    Thanks again for your thoughtfulness and wisdom in this review.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

    There is so much that people do not understand about this time period. Other countries like Canada were even further behind than the States. Women ended up in homes well into the 1970’s there – I know – I was one of them.

    For instance, did you know that giving advice on birth control in Ontario, Canada before 1969 was actually deemed illegal, regardless of the marital status of the woman. Many people don’t realise that.

    Did you know that racism forced a lot of mothers to surrender their children? In the southern States, they didn’t just burn crosses on your lawn – they burnt down your house and murdered the whole family if they had a mixed relationship. Many people can’t comprehend that now.

    As for myself, I simply could not get accommodation because it was legal to deny unwed mothers any accommodation or employment whatsoever – that is why many of us ended up in these homes. I wanted my son, his father did and we didn’t even consent to our son’s adoption.

    Our families outright rejected us.
    My own parents said “Don’t come back with that THING”

    Many people don’t realise that babies were taken WITHOUT the consent of fit parents just because they had not married yet (even being engaged was not enough).

    I lost my son for a quarter of a century just because there was no wedding ring on my finger when he was born. In Ontario, the unwed father was NOT allowed to sign the birth registration because it said “Husband”, not “Father” on it – thus forcibly making our children “fatherless” against our will.

    The Ontario government has admitted that adoption fraud was rife in Ontario and that parents WERE denied basic human rights – such as access to an independent lawyer.
    It was a right that I was personally denied in hospital.

    You have to remember that we did not have mobile phones or the internet. The hospital staff could and did lock down phones on our wards so that we could not phone out for help. If we tried to leave the hospital, the staff would threatened to cancel our hospital insurance.

    I wasn’t even allowed a picture of my son in hospital.
    The staff smashed up my camera.

    When I asked a professional photographer to take my son’s picture, he was told by the hospital staff that he was forbidden to do so.

    I never stopped thinking about my son.
    His father and I looked for him for years.

    I am pleased to say that we have reunited with our son.
    He is reunited with all of his siblings.

    Our reunion is 4 years old and life is finally wonderful.

    I no longer if wonder if my son is dead or being abused – and I can really send him a birthday card!

    That may sound like a small thing to you – but ask any mother about how important it is to them that they can.

    Again, many thanks for the thoughtful review.

  3. Cath, thank you for sharing your personal story and also elaborating a bit more on the time period. I can’t believe that was only thirty or forty years ago.

  4. I, too was delighted with Ann’s book but unhappy about the book’s title and it’s implication that abortion gave women all the “choice” they needed.

    In USA, women are still stuggling for decent respectful treatment for themselves and their children. Birth control and the option to keep your son or daughter is certainly less traumatizing than being forced into adoption (or forced into abortion). Today religious groups like the Mormons (as one example) still force or “strongly encourage” single parents-to-be to legally abandon their newborns (euphemistically referred to as “choosing adoption”). Women (and their male partners and grandparents-to-be) are being lured by all kinds of slick advertising by the adoption attorneys, adoption businesses and other people who profit in some way from the baby trade.

    ….just as hearbreaking, women in impoverished countries are now being used as baby-production machines, paid to provide their children in the form of eggs, or to bear children for aging people who waited too long to reproduce. After they perform this “labor”, they are told to forget about the “it” and then they are summarily dumped out on the street, just as the women in Ann’s book were. The only good thing is that the person that was sold is now speaking up on the web in some of the blogs I’ve seen.

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