The petite, soft-spoken 52-year-old was middle-class, unmarried,
and pregnant at age 17 in 1969. Like hundreds of thousands of other
young women of that time, she disappeared into a "home for unwed
mothers" to bear - and then lose - her child.
In the three decades between the end of World War II and the legalizing
of abortion in 1973, adoption flourished in America as never before,
By the early 1970s, almost 20 percent of all "illegitimate" babies
- 80,000 in 1970 alone - were given up for adoption. Now, with well
over a million out-of-wedlock births every year, less than 1 percent
- about 10,000 babies annually - are placed for adoption.
To open a window on that era of "closed adoption," historians have
begun unraveling the social dynamics, unwed mothers are sharing
their stories, and artists are portraying the painful legacy.
The latest example is "Everlasting," a provocative sound and video
exhibit at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. It juxtaposes
artist Ann Fessler's search for her biological mother with the recollections
of seven women who relinquished their newborns.
One of the seven, Karen Wilson Buterbaugh of Richmond, Va., calls
women like herself "exiled mothers."
"I don't think the public knows. They don't want to know," she
says. "Adoption is such a sacred cow."
Jacque Kenney was a senior at Cardinal O'Hara High School in Philadelphia,
a self-described "goody two-shoes" headed for college, when she
got pregnant in 1969.
She and Bill Guinan, her longtime high school sweetheart, announced
plans to marry, but their scandalized families balked. A shotgun
wedding, they were warned, would derail their lives, end in failure,
and limit their child's prospects.
So Jacque turned to St. Vincent's Maternity Home - a sprawling
red-brick complex in Southwest Philadelphia that included a maternity
hospital and orphanage. (The property was later sold and is now
a homeless shelter.) She had not decided on adoption, but she was
desperate. She had no money, no clue how to get any, and Bill, who
was in the Navy, was about to be shipped out. Most of all, she felt
disgraced. She was forbidden to attend her graduation, answer her
parents' phone, or even stand by a window lest her secret get out.
"You were ostracized. You had to be out of sight, out of mind,"
she recalled recently, sitting in her home in Elverson, Pa.
Her shame helped to fuel a market she didn't know existed - the
market for babies.
On the supply side, sexual strictures loosened up after World War
II, and the number of out-of-wedlock births soared from 88,000 in
1938 to 407,000 in 1973. On the demand side, infertile couples,
feeling marginalized by the baby boom's glorification of domesticity,
clamored for infants; adoptions soared from 16,000 in 1937 to a
peak of 175,000 in 1970.
It also helped that the socioeconomic profile of "wayward" women
had improved. Many were well-educated, well-bred and well-mannered
- like Jacque Kenney.
For such girls - white ones, at least - maternity homes became
ideal hideouts. (Historian Rickie Solinger concludes in "Wake Up
Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade" that
illegitimate black babies were considered "unmarketable" and thus
left with their mothers.)
By 1966, there were about 200 licensed, nonprofit maternity homes
- package deals offering accommodations, medical care and adoption
services - that could serve about 7,500 young women at a time. Most
were affiliated with churches or charities, but there were also
countless unregulated, for-profit "lying-in" homes, some with ties
to black-market baby-selling rings.
There is no doubt many women who sought refuge believed adoption
was the best choice - and still do. There is also no doubt that
maternity homes made "adoption is best" a mantra. Counseling - if
it could be called that - was to make the mother see that keeping
her baby would be self-destructive and shortsighted. No surprise,
85 percent of residents gave up their babies.
"The day after my son was born, the social worker was there, pen
and paper in hand," Guinan said. "She told me not to be selfish,
that my son would be considered a bastard, and that I had nothing
to offer him."
Patricia Ann Nogar, 55, of Trooper, Pa., who was in a St. Louis,
Mo., maternity home in 1969, recalled: "Everybody begins to pressure
you, saying, `You'll never be able to raise this child alone.' You
give in. ... You don't know what else to do."
Former residents describe their months of concealment as a cross
between being in reform school and a sorority. Visitors, phone calls
and mail were restricted. Residents were not supposed to reveal
last names, although many secretly did and stayed in touch. There
were chores, vocational classes, and regimentation, but also crafts
and recreation programs.
The most traumatizing part of the experience - and the practice
that today seems most misguided - was the hasty separation of mother
and newborn. Many women say it intensified, rather than relieved,
the inevitable grieving process. Guinan, for example, saw her son
at birth for only an instant, through a fog of anesthesia. Later,
confined to her bed, she begged to hold him.
"I got hysterical. But the nun said to me, `No. It would do more
harm than good,' " Guinan said.
Nogar said she saw her son once - through the glass of the newborn
nursery. Months after signing adoption papers, she sought counseling
because of a recurring dream about throwing babies off a bridge.
Buterbaugh was allowed to hold her daughter - but not to take photographs.
She got a snapshot with her baby anyway, taken by a girl who smuggled
in a camera.
Social workers, the self-described experts on illegitimacy, were
behind these well-intentioned, now-regrettable practices.
The experts, twisting Freudian theory, reasoned that good girls
were getting pregnant because they were emotionally ill. The cure
was to give up the baby.
"On a clinical basis, it has been found that giving the baby up
for adoption is the best solution for the majority of unmarried
mothers and makes possible greater opportunity for their future
development," declared caseworker Sarah Evan, at the National Conference
of Social Work's 1957 convention in Philadelphia.
Keeping the baby was self-destructive and "ego-alien," Evan said.
The mother needed to be helped to see this "if the out-of-wedlock
pregnancy is not to become yet another trauma in her neurotic
That represented a seismic shift from earlier thinking.
In the decades before 1940, child-welfare workers opposed adoption,
says E. Wayne Carp, a historian at Pacific Northwestern University.
After all, adoption had been unregulated and often inhumane. It
was further tainted by eugenicists' claims that unwed mothers were
congenitally "feebleminded." Above all, biological family ties were
considered superior, even sacred.
In fact, the earliest maternity homes - founded in the late 1800s
by evangelical Christians seeking to save "fallen" women - saw the
mother-baby bond as a tool of redemption. Some homes, Williams College
historian Regina Kunzel says, even required women to sign contracts
promising to keep their babies.
Jacque and Bill got married despite their families' disapproval.
But their defiant act came in January 1970 - 16 months after Jacque
had left their son behind at St. Vincent's.
They went on to have six more children - all daughters.
"People would ask, `What, no boys?' " Jacque recalls. "I would
say `no,' but feel like I was denying my son."
While Bill buried his feelings, Jacque was tormented by guilt and
grief. At her urging, they joined a support group and began searching
for their son. They also became foster parents. In 1990, they even
made plans to adopt a biracial baby boy - until Jacque went into
a crippling depression. After seeking medical help, she confided
the root of her problem to her daughters.
She could not know that her son was living just 40 miles away in
Quakertown, Pa., and that he had been searching for her for a decade.
That's because in Pennsylvania, as in most states, parties to a
closed adoption may not see their own records. Even though such
secrecy has become outmoded, adoptees and birth parents must use
scraps of data such as birth dates to reunite through state adoption
registries, Internet sites, or other intermediaries.
In November 2000, the Guinans' daughter Alexa called a registry.
At last, there was a data match.
Mark Major was stunned to be found not just by his biological mother,
but by a clan.
For Jacque, too, the reunion has been "more than I could ever have
"Mark embraced us immediately. His adoptive father is deceased,
but his adoptive mom has been very welcoming. We celebrated Mark's
birthday together. She said she always knew her happiness came out
of my sorrow."
Jacque need look no further than her son to see how dramatically
attitudes have changed. Major, 34, an equipment company manager,
is a devoted father who lives with his 12-year-old son and has an
amicable relationship with his son's mother, to whom he was not
Still, Jacque's joy is not as unqualified as her son's or her family's.
Like so many other women who were instructed to forget and move
on, she cannot. Her loss, as well as her love, is permanent.
"My son is a remarkable young man," she said of the handsome, dark-haired
adult that her strawberry-blond infant grew up to be. "But the reunion
has been full of pain. I thought, `Finally, the pain will be done,'
but it's not. That has caught me by surprise."
"Everlasting," a free exhibit, runs through March 16 at Maryland
Institute College of Art's Decker Gallery, 1400 Cathedral St., Baltimore.
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5
p.m. Information: 410-225-2300 or www.mica.edu/everlasting.
© 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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