Speech Presented to the Association for Research
on Mothering, at York University, May 5, 2001
afternoon. This speech is a message from the mothers of the Canadian
Council of Natural Mothers, mothers who have suffered the trauma
of having lost a child or children to adoption and who are learning
to understand what happened to us and our children. Much of what
I say here is a collection of thoughts shared by the members of
the CCNM. We are mostly first mothers and some adopted persons
who acknowledge the life-long suffering caused by adoption and
seek the truth. What follows is a work in process on this journey
which is just beginning. I will also acknowledge with deepest
love and gratitude the contribution of my son Doug with whom I
have been reunited now for 26 months and 7 days. Together we have
spent hundreds of hours processing our loss and the circumstances
of our reunion. The day we met in person we sat down together
in my kitchen, he enfolded my hands in his and asked, "What happened?"
What follows is in part an answer to this question.
The Historical Victimization of Mothers
the 19th century, race science, the belief that there are distinct
human races that can be identified, and classified scientifically
by judgements of intelligence, emotional and moral capabilities,
included blacks, poor people, criminals and white women. Scientists
poured beans into the skulls of deceased members of such groups
and then compared the sums found in each type of skull to numbers
of beans captured in more respectable skulls, white men of substance.
In a remarkable travesty of science, they determined that women
had intelligence which was less evolved than that of men and in
particular, poor women. Poor women, because of "poor moral fibre"
and lesser intelligence, produced children out of wedlock and
hence became a "problem."
because of prevailing social prejudice and bad science, we were
reduced by circumstances to a class of social inferiors, fallen
women. The theory of "bad blood", associated with race science,
assumed the heritability of moral inferiority. It was assumed
that "illegitimate" children would inevitably inherit inferior
characteristics and swell the ranks of the poor and criminal.
The powerful of the time determined that not only did the mothers
have no right to keep their children, but that the children would
be better off without their mothers.
the theory of the "tabula rasa", assumed that a baby was a blank
slate containing no predetermined behavioural constructions. This
was an ideal platform on which to justify adoption practices and
the removal of children from their natural parents. The child
could be molded by an adoptive family with no fear of interference
from the "inferior" characteristics of the first mother.
science wove its way into the laws of Canada on March 29, 1927
after the urging of adoptive parents who lobbied the government
of Ontario because they were distressed by the existence of their
adopted children's original identities on their birth certificates.
The Adoption Act in Ontario was amended and a clause added
which sealed the adoption. Neither the Toronto Star nor
the Globe & Mail published any articles about this
historic moment for adoptees and their natural parents.
Problem of the Mothers Now
maternal instinct is strong. How do you pry a baby away from her
mother? As you shall see, the secrecy provided for in the laws
of early twentieth century provided an ideal environment in which
to make this happen.
mothers from their children, en masse, could only happen in a
climate of coercion. The creation of an entire subclass of people,
fallen women, made coercion possible. The fallen woman became
situated in her place of no power during the twentieth century.
First, the prevailing social opinion held that natural mothers
of "illegitimate" children were inferior, as I have said, and
therefore incapable of raising their children. This, in combination
with shame paralyzed the mother.
application of shame, coupled with poverty and the unacknowledged
trauma of the mother, enabled the circumstances leading up to
the surrendering of her child. The laws of Canada, one by one
across the country, dignified this process by claiming to act
"in the best interests of the child" and for the good of the mother,
since secret adoption records also saved her from the shame. This
was all done across this land without consulting natural mothers
or their "illegitimate" offspring as to their opinions and the
consequences of adoption, secret or otherwise. It was done to
them, for them, but not by them.
face of shame and coercion changed over the years and often involved
force which rarely went detected. The language of adoption has
always marginalized us with legal adjectives to keep us separate,
different than and less than full mothers of our children. The
"fallen woman" became the "unwed mother" who became the "birthmother".
We became legal non-entities upon signing the government forms
called "consent to adoption". We were no longer parents. Institutional
and governmental practices leading up to and subsequent to our
signing the papers ensured our acquiescence. For the most part,
The Adoption Industry
adoption industry was created to support the systematic transfer
of babies from their original parents to their new homes with
adoptive parents. The industry engaged the social work profession,
lawyers, doctors, government workers, churches, the police etc.,
all of whom formed a powerful web to secure their own interests
which involved the transfer of large sums of money to fill the
pockets of these workers. How large this was and is in Canada,
I don't know. But I can give you an idea extrapolated from the
currently on the adoption site adoption.about.com "Adoption
Services Valued At $1.4 Billion" An industry analysis of
Fertility Clinics and Adoption Services by Marketdata Enterprises
of Tampa, FL, has placed a $1.4 billion value on adoption services
in the US, with a projected annual growth rate of 11.5% to 2004.
According to a report from PR Newswire, this is the only
analysis of this business sector ever undertaken.
analysis places adoption costs between $15,000 - $30,000, and
describes adoption as "complex, and stories of unscrupulous operators
abound in this loosely regulated field." If you could extrapolate
this $1.4 billion dollars on a per capita basis to Canada, you
would project a sum of $156M involving the adoption industry
I admit is a crude projection and will no doubt vary because of
Canadian circumstances. But even if it's off by 25% or more, one
can see the scope of investment in adoption in Canada.
her speech to The First National American Adoption Congress, Washington
D.C. on May 4, 1979, Margaret McDonald Lawrence encapsulated the
need of the adoption industry to manufacture the demonization
of the natural mother as the most pivotal and necessary requirement
in the promotion of, and social acceptance of adoption, when she
"In order to bring the issues surrounding the intermediary
system into clear focus, it is necessary to examine the myths
and motives that surround the adoption experience. Outsiders
need to realize that social agencies not only control adoption
procedures, but also control the information about the institution
which is provided to the courts, the legislature and the public.
It is the child welfare establishment that has provided the
picture of birth mothers as indifferent - as mothers who abandon
their unwanted children with a wish to remain forever hidden
from them. They know that this is seldom true, but it helps
to facilitate their work for the public to believe this. Society
does not dismiss the importance of the natural family as readily
as the social planners, and so it is useful to portray relinquishing
parents as different from caring parents.
birth mother must be different, an aberration; for if it were
true that she had the same degree of love for her child as all
other mothers, the good of adoption would be overwhelmed by
the tragedy of it."
following is from Fallen Women Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers
and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890 - 1945
by Regina G.
Kunzel (1993). It is the basis of how we were seen and how
we were treated in the 1960's and early 70's:
workers placed unmarried mothers at the vortex of a constellation
of larger social problems that revolved around the state of
morality and family life. By various interpretations, the unmarried
mother functioned as cause and effect of those problems; that
she was embroiled in this maelstrom, however, was uncontested.
To Judge Benjamin Lindsey, for instance, unmarried mothers,
'are in society a part of its problem and its filth. They are
responsible for many of the divorce cases, for its broken homes,
desertions, sorrow, misery, blighted faith, despair, and the
great mass of social ills which infect society.' In Lindsey's
view, shared by many of his contemporaries, unmarried mothers
were not victims but rather agents of larger social problems.
Taking up the issue of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, social workers
began to see unmarried mothers not as endangered but as dangerous."(p.51).
"The task of inventing their own modern, professional identities
led social workers to contribute to new sexual discourses that
stigmatized working-class women's sexuality as pathological
and criminal." (p.64).
the 1940's to the 1960's we are labeled neurotics. Anne Petrie
in Gone to an Aunt's (1998), reports that at a conference
of psychologists in 1964 named bizarrely the "Out of Wedlock"
conference, we were described as having a deficient ego or an
unresolved electra complex as well as being "psychically weak."
Social workers argued that sex delinquents were unfit to be mothers,
and neurotic unmarried mothers were considered no more competent
to care for their children. In the 1940's, social workers took
a more active role in encouraging unmarried mothers to put their
children up for adoption". (Regina Kunzel, 1993 P.155) "In my
experience," wrote Leontine Young, a prominent psychologist who
wrote Out of Wedlock in 1954, asserted, "the majority of
unmarried mothers are not strong, mature, well adjusted people,
and the reality is that only such a person can assume and carry
out responsibility for an out-of-wedlock child without serious
damage to both herself and the child."
The Medical Profession - doctors and nurses
her book about the moral regulation of single mothers 1920
-1997, No Car, No Radio, No Liquor Permit, Margaret Jane Hillyard
the late 50's: "The debate inside Queen's Park was only part
of a larger controversy that continued concerning morality and
premarital sex. Unwed mothers became the scapegoats for much
of this societal turmoil about moral standards. Dr. Marion Hilliard,
Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Women's College Hospital
in Toronto believed that an unwed mother should be punished
by having her child adopted: 'When she renounces her child for
its own good, the unwed mother has learned a lot. She has learned
to pay the price of her misdemeanor and this alone, if punishment
is needed, is punishment enough.' Other social workers and officials
representing homes for unwed mothers echoed Dr. Hilliard's philosophy"
It never seems to have occurred to any of these professionals
that we were normal people who were caught in a web of social
taboos with no way out. Our problems were political; we just needed
support, not analysis. Families There is an old Scottish saying,
"Take care of your own." How could this basic strategy to survive
have been forgotten by families? How can shame be this powerful?
Families more often than not colluded with the institutions. They
accepted the social construction of the great shame and expelled
their daughters, sending them to maternity homes, which themselves
played out the secrecy in rigorous and punitive ways, or they
sent their daughters to live with other strangers or relatives.
Daughters were separated from all of their support systems - friends,
relatives and fathers of their babies even if they wanted to be
supportive. The church and state were supreme. In these ways families
reinforced our own sense of unworthiness as mothers to our own
flesh and blood.
a child to adoption is a trauma unlike any other. It is a sentence
of endless unresolvable loss and grief for most. The consequences
of this loss play themselves out it ways too vast to adequately
explain here. For the mother, she may become infertile herself.
Some 30-50% do. She may find herself practising destructive behaviours
which ensure that she never has to trust anyone again, or she
may become ill and/or suicidal. If she has more children in a
"legitimate" family, they too may suffer from her unresolved sorrow.
are some examples of the experiences of our own members:
one mother in Montreal in 1959 was forced to sign "the paper"
on Christmas eve less than two and a half hours after giving birth
so that the staff could go home early. Later, when she got her
non-identification papers, they stated that the form was signed
three weeks later than it actually was. Where was legal counsel
to advise her of her rights?
1978 Cathy H. was thrown out of her home onto the front lawn on
the advice of the family priest. She was 17 and seven months pregnant.
She wanted to marry her baby's father but was prevented. She wandered
around the city until she found a maternity home. Cathy has the
scars to prove that she was abused by a hospital nurse yielding
a razor blade when she gave birth, and when she finds her son
she expects to see scars on the crown of his head. She never signed
"the papers" but had her baby removed from her by court order.
Another mother was raped on her eighteenth birthday. The rapist
was never punished but she was also ostracized by her family.
of us were injected against our will with the lactation-suppressing
drug DES which caused cancer or we were subdued in hospital with
other drugs. We were often treated badly by hospital staff who
refused to let us see or hold our babies even prior to our signing
the papers when we were still the legal guardians of our babies.
In the Toronto General Hospital in 1963 I was refused access to
my son yet had to endure the indignity of reading a note attached
to his basinette which read: "Mother does not want to see baby".
The coercion of the mother, shamed and blamed, made her feel inadequate
to parent her child.
wanted a good home for her baby. This meant having a father, which
she couldn't provide. But without the support of family, friends
and the child welfare institutions, where was the choice?
what about "the best interests of the child"? Sandra Jarvie, a
CCNM member wrote in a private e-mail:
interests of the child' is really a brainwashing technique that
has survived through the decades ... It forms the picture of
the 'child at risk' with his/her natural mother therefore demeaning
and devaluing the mother not only to society but also to us...
Today it's used like a weapon. Imagine in an open adoption the
young woman will never be 'good enough'. If she is poor and
the adoptive family is wealthy she will be continuously reminded
of her lesser value, because in the 'best interests of the child'
parents with money are better. So 'the best interests of the
child' ... supports adoption 'choice' into the future. In the
past it was our morals and poverty, today it's poverty... It
was for me in 1968, times haven't changed."
feminist establishment ignores us. Why is there virtually nothing
about us in feminist literature? Could it be that they too are
conflicted about us? Have the imperatives of "pro choice"
eclipsed our true history? Today young unsupported pregnant women
are lured into plans to surrender their children, sometimes in
so-called "open adoptions" where the mothers have no legal rights
to see their children. The grief and loss is the same for such
by our governments, the internet abounds with pictures advertising
children for adoption without any regard for their future. Some
of them will come to feel as commodified as cattle or slaves in
do not accept the definitions which ripped our children from our
breasts and damaged ourselves and our children under the hypocritical
guise of "the best interests of the child". We claim our place
as mothers of our children who were taken from us by deceitful
acts of coercion.
© Karen Lynn
Karen Lynn is president of the Canadian
Council of Natural Mothers (CCNM)