(Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored by Karen Wilson Buterbaugh.)
Open any book written about the Sixties and you will see that a powerful sociological event is missing. Absent in the index will be entries for “maternity homes” and “unwed mothers,” yet millions of single women were interred in maternity homes with their soon-to-be-born “illegitimate” babies earmarked for adoption.
Chances are good that you knew one of these girls. One day she just disappeared from school. Maybe it was your girlfriend. Or maybe it was you.
From approximately 1940 to 1970, estimates are that four million mothers lost children to adoption; two million during the 1960s alone. Four million mothers, four million fathers and more than four million adopted children… 16 million people directly affected by adoption. Why so many single mothers’ babies were adopted during this era is not generally understood and remains swept under the rug by the adoption industry.
Parents went to great lengths to hide their daughter’s “mistake” from friends, relatives and neighbors. To be absolved of her “sin,” she was sent to a maternity home.
What happed to these women four decades ago and what became of the babies that resulted from these criminal conceptions? Were the fathers of these children involved or did they just walk away?
The 1960s represented great social upheaval, the Vietnam War, Women’s Lib and the Sexual Revolution. But the sexual revolution did not apply to these women. They fell into an abyss between World War II and Roe v. Wade.
Sex oozed from radios as teenagers slow danced. It teased and tempted through movies. It was everywhere but contraception was not. There were no pills available and no sex education in their classrooms.
When a girl found herself “in trouble,” denial was staggering. The mind would do anything to avoid the truth and young women went to great lengths to hide those gestating truths! Their dresses got tighter and sweaters covered up the zippers that would no longer zip. If pregnancy occurred to their parents, it was quickly dismissed. That couldn’t happen to their daughter!
Thoughts of parental confrontation were agonizing. Some daughters were thrown out and warned, “Don’t bring back that bastard baby!” Some said, “Don’t worry, we’ll help you.” But the help offered was far worse than taking care of their own babies and dealing with the social consequences.
Many girls sought the fathers of the soon-to-be-born babies to give them the news but some never knew. Decisions were made quickly. Girls were expelled from school or removed by parents who scrambled with decisions of where to hide them.
Most maternity homes were filled to capacity so some girls had to be placed in “wage homes” until they were admitted to the maternity home. In wage homes, they cooked, cleaned and baby-sat for strangers.
Once a maternity home resident, girls had to use false names or first name and last initial. They were assigned chores and some finished high school in makeshift classrooms. They were not given information about pregnancy and childbirth, nor did anyone try to alleviate their emotional pain.
A social worker would meet with them weekly but not ask how they felt about “the baby.” They told mothers, “A married couple will be choÃ?Âsen who can give the baby everything it needs,” “You will forget and go on with your life as if this never happened,” “No man will marry a woman with a child,” and “The baby will be called a bastard.” They said many things that made mothers feel unworthy.Ã?Â But no one asked if they wanted to keep their own baby.
Life inside the maternity home was regiÃ?Âmented. Their incoming and outgoing mail was strictly censored. Usually the only visitors allowed were their own parents. Rarely were they allowed to speak to or see their friends, especially not the babies’ fathers.
They were not told about labor and many were heavily drugged or given no medication at all. Most were left alone during labor with no family present. Some saw and held their babies but the majority did neither. Some babies were placed in new homes directly from the hospital. Others returned with their mothers to the maternity home. Some were instructed by their social worker to give the baby to her because they viewed this act as the mother transferring the baby as a “gift” to them. Social workers viewed this as re-enforcing the voluntary nature of the mothers’ decision, of solidifying the transaction. It was the expected outcome after months of “counseling.”
Many babies went to foster care. As a result, mothers could not visit or reclaim them. They were not informed of a revocation period, a time in which they could reclaim their babies.
The Dotted Line
Some mothers were asked to sign surrender papers while still in the hospital, druggÃ?Âed and recuperating from childÃ?Âbirth. Some signed before they left the maternity home. Some signed in front of a judge. It is not uncommon to hear that mothers sobbÃ?Âed when asked if they were signing willingly yet many signatures were still accepted.
Many mothers who signed papers at the agency did not receive any explanation of the content nor did they have a lawyer to protect their rights. They were simply told where to sign. Often parents or friends were not present to provide help or support.
Papers terminating parental rights can be signed solely by a minor and be legally binding. Why are minors allowed to sign a contract of such magnitude with such proÃ?Âfound, life-long conseÃ?Âquences? In America, minors are not permitted to sign any other type of legal contract.
Childbirth had changed them forever. They were no longer girls. They were mothers, even if unsanctioned. Life at home felt awkward and surreal.
Evidence of their illicit motherhood remained, leaking breasts and stretch marks, making it impossible to forget. Drifting through meaningless days, they realized that they no longer fit into society or their own families. Parents acted as if nothÃ?Âing had happened. Friends had graduated high school, were settled at college, busy with jobs or married.
Eventually some mothers married and gave birth to additional children. Life seemÃ?Âed normal. But alone, they cried into soaked pillows. Some married men who abused them, men who took away any remaining self-esteem. Some mothers never married and never had more children.
Each morning they would re-awaken to the realization of their loss and accept their penance with downcast eyes. Some moved farther away, adding distance with such exÃ?Âcuses as college or new jobs.
In their minds, their babies had died. But no resolution could be found because their babies were still out there, somewhere. There is no consolation as there is for married mothers who lose babies to death. Banished mothers are unrecognized and invalided. They are not normal mourners who suffered grievous loss. They are invisible. Their babies are dead by adoption.
Doomed to fail, they are punished for their fertility, for giving birth, for surrendering, for grieving, for remaining silent andÃ?Â for lying to cover up their “secret.” Today, they are re-stigmatized for telling the truth, finding their children and reclaiming their motherhood.
Their loss and grief did not decrease over time; in fact, those feelings increased and left others feeling uncomfortable.
Physiologically primed to nurture their babies, they had been denied this basic right. As time passed, they learned how to live a half-life, a place of torturous unreality and psychological death. Those who married became two people, the disqualified mother and the respectable, married mother.
Having done “the right thing” placÃ?Âed them in a no-win situation. Today they are stunned to learn that they are viewed as unloving and abandoning mothersÃ?Â. After all, says society, “What real mother would give up her own child?”
Mothers are questioning the past. Did the government, to keep single mothers off welfare, play a part in the Baby Scoop? As it is now known, social workers seeking professionalism, created the cure for “unwed motherhood” that resulted in the surrender of babies to adoption in numbers never seen before or since the 1960s.
In addition, an increasing number of infertile, married couples were demanding children to adopt. Did social workers, knowing they had a ready supply of babies, resolve that demand while ignoring the natural mothers’ entitlement?
Many now recognize that social workers assigned to them did not do their duty to inform regarding specific means that might have allowed them to keep such as welfare, child support, temporary foster care, and the right to revoke consent within a designated time. These choices were not offered. That they were not is unforgivable.
Mental Health Implications
The loss of a child is a trauma of the highest order. Anna Freud said, “The horrors of war pale beside the loss of a mother.” The same can be said about the loss of a child. Our society, however, has looked at the loss of a child to adoption as a non-issue. These women were told they would forget and go on with their lives. Would we say the same to a woman whose child had died or had been kidnapped?
When a woman loses a child to adoption she experiences the death of that child but, not allowed to grieve, the loss paralyzes her. Her life goes on hold. Many mothers have said they died inside when they lost their child to adoption. Because no one helps them grieve, they must shut down to survive and consequently loses the ability to experience their true feelings.. They may develop false personae to be able to function.
Those who suffer a trauma and do not get help, suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptoms are: panic and anxiety attacks, recurrent dreams of the loss, inability to fully experience feelings, angry outbursts, hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating, loss of memory of important aspects of the trauma, and difficulty loving and trusting others.
In addition to the PTSD symptoms, the following are common: free-floating sadness, sexual difficulties, fear of intimacy, difficulty with interpersonal relationships and extreme guilt and shame. The shame and guilt often cause these women to not tell anyone of their loss and not seek help. They think there is no way to heal and indeed, without good professional help from someone knowledgeable in adoption loss, these women will be trapped in a living hell for the rest of their lives. They may be able to put on a good front but inside they will be in constant agony. Those who do reveal their loss to their friends and family, are often asked what is wrong with them that they cannot forget and move on. Sadly most mental health professionals will ask the same damaging question.
There were many lies told about these mothers and these lies reached the ears of their lost children. Lies that would prevent their children from searching for their own mothers because they might find prostitutes or drug addicts etc. These lies would also come back to haunt the mothers if they had a reunion and further injure them. More lies occurred when most of the women who had their babies taken by the adoption industry were told that they would destroy their child’s life if they searched and found them. They were also led to believe that it is illegal to search. Neither statement is true. Search is not illegal in any state and searching for one’s lost child is a gift to that child. The process of searching offers an opportunity to do some healing. One should attend one of the hundreds of adoption support groups and prepare emotionally for a search and possible reunion. The support groups are often a good source for local therapists who would be knowledgeable about adoption loss. The wounds of adoption loss can be greatly eased with the right help and the support groups offer the best starting point.
Anyone seeking professional help has the right to interview potential therapists in order to be able to select one suitable for their needs. The prospective client has a right to know where and when the therapist got her degrees, whether or not she is licensed by the state, what specialized training she has had and whether she can accept insurance. The prospective client has a right to know how much experience the therapist has in working with adoption-related issues, whether the therapist has personal experience in adoption and what kind of experience she has had. The prospective client should ask for a curriculum vitae from the therapist and also ask what adoption-related literature the therapist has read. If the prospective therapist is not forthcoming with this information, the client might well look elsewhere. It would be worthwhile to inquire if your therapist ever worked for an adoption agency as an agency social worker might not be able to offer the right help.
There are therapists who, with no experience whatsoever in adoption, have an great deal of sensitivity to the issues. If you are fortunate enough to find one who is sensitive to the issues and feel comfortable with her, she may well be able to help you on your journey.