time, I have wondered how in the world I got to this place.
I have always tried to do the right thing in life, yet the results
from making wrong choices were constantly staring me in the
face. An example, and granted it is a huge one, was getting
pregnant at the age of seventeen, which caused the loss of my
child to adoption.
at my desk one day, pondering this question, I was struck
with an idea. Since I knew virtually nothing about what had
happened to me and why, I decided to search for answers. After
logging onto the Internet, I searched for out-of-print books.
My thinking was that reading books written by social workers,
historians, and sociologists at that time might shed some
light on the subject of the surrender of babies to adoption.
So, not only have I spent the past five years doing some serious
soul searching, I've also done some very important reading.
share with you a small part of what I've learned since then.
When an adoption
takes place, there are four parties involved: the people who
adopt, the facilitator, the child and the child's natural
parents. Society as a whole prefers to overlook the real needs
of the child and of the natural mother. Tragically, even today,
those real needs are disregarded.
or forty years ago, before readily available contraception,
many unmarried, pregnant girls were forced into hiding. We
spent months in "wage homes" as unpaid servants, unwed maternity
institutions or both. In 1966, I spent three months in two
different wage homes prior to being admitted as a resident
of the Florence Crittenton maternity facility in Washington,
the fathers of our babies, most of whom quietly walked away,
we couldn't hide the visible evidence of our participation
in socially unsanctioned sexuality.
mothers of the closed adoption era have been shrouded in secrecy
and misunderstanding. Negative fantasies have marginalized
us from the rest of society. The general perception is that
we are deviant women who callously discarded our babies. This
is one of many myths that surrounds and intensifies the pain
of my personal experience and that of hundreds of thousands
of other mothers who surrendered.
Thought Reform, and Maternity Homes
about mothers who "made the decision to give up" their babies
to adoption. Is it true that we made informed decisions without
pressure from social workers (often referred to as "caseworkers")
who worked in maternity homes and adoption agencies?
Biestek, in The Casework Relationship (1957), Loyola University
School of Social Work, states that:
have differed in their evaluation of the capacity of unmarried
mothers... to make sound decisions. Some feel that unmarried
mothers are so damaged emotionally that they are incapable
of arriving at a good decision themselves. These caseworkers
have expressed the conviction that they must guide, "steer,"
and "take sides in" the final decision. (Emphasis added)
me, many other young mothers didn't know what a "home for
unwed mothers" was until we suddenly found ourselves deposited
at its front door with our suitcase in hand. These institutions
were thought to offer safety and shelter from society's scorn.
In reality, they were punishing in nature and have been referred
to as "baby factories."
effect did the environment of a maternity "home" have on us?
Could brainwashing, more commonly known today as thought reform,
have played a part in the surrender of our babies to adoption?
to Margaret Thayler Singer and Richard Ofshe, respected psychologists
and leading experts on thought reform:
effectiveness of thought reform programs did not depend
on prison settings, physical abuse or death threats. Programs
used... the application of intense guilt/shame/anxiety manipulation...
with the production of strong emotional arousal in settings
where people did not leave because of social and psychological
pressures or because of enforced confinement.
Singer and Ofshe provide six conditions that are required
to put a system of thought reform into place. Below follows
a comparison of thought reform conditions to the maternity
Reform vs. the Maternity "Home" Experience
were not instructed about pregnancy, labor, delivery; were
left totally alone during labor and delivery; were not allowed
contact with new mothers; not provided information about
welfare and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC),
child support and other government programs.
their environment and time.
forced to live in maternity "homes"; made to use fictitious
names or first names and last initials only; allowed no
contact with friends and boy-friends by letter, phone or
in person; kept away from everything familiar; made to follow
strict daily routines.
a sense of powerlessness.
away our money (pay phones only); no personal (familiar)
clothing; not allowed freedom to come and go; removed everything
that would remind us of who we were.
and punishments to inhibit behavior reflecting former identity.
"neurotic" if we said no to "relinquishing"; told we were
"out of touch with reality" and "selfish" if we kept our
babies; told our pregnancy was "proof of unfitness."
and punishments promoting group's beliefs or behaviors.
no television, phone, visitation or radio privileges if
not following rules; scolding and de-meaning lectures for
disagreeing; harangued when speaking up against "counseling"
(reasons why we should "choose" adoption); praised for agreeing
and authority which permits no feedback.
caseworkers and housemothers enforced strict rules and rigid
schedule: wakeup, bedtime, meals, chores and approved visitation;
censored mail (both incoming and outgoing); no legal counsel;
no support system.
clear that all of the thought reform conditions were present
during the many months we were forced to hide away in maternity
Solinger, in Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and
Race Before Roe v. Wade (1992), gives us a sense of the
maternity home environment:
world of maternity homes in postwar America was a gothic
attic obscured from the community by the closed curtains
of gentility and high spiked fences. The girls and women
sent inside were dreamwalkers serving time, pregnant dreamwalkers
taking the cure. Part criminal, part patient, the unwed
mother arrived on the doorstep with her valise and, moving
inside, found herself enclosed within an idea...
homes... served to further stigmatize pregnant young women
by removing them from their families, friends and neighbors...
these "homes" could create an austere and frightening atmosphere
for the birth mother, whose freedom of movement was strictly
curtailed by these instant chaperones and guardians. Typically,
birth mothers were expected to help out in these homes with
chores such as cleaning, dishwashing, and so on... while
the birth mother's physical needs were met, seldom were
her emotional needs addressed...
occurred between the time we revealed our pregnancy to our
parents and the surrender of our child? What role did our
parents play in our confinement?
cases, our parents sought advice from local churches that
directed them to church-affiliated or county adoption agencies.
Those agencies usually referred our parents to maternity homes.
Wake Up Little Susie spells out the enormous social
pressure parents felt:
embraced the idea of maternity homes partly because in the
postwar decades, parents themselves needed protection as
much as their erring daughters... If the girl disappeared,
the problem disappeared with her.
was the role of adoption agencies? How much influence did
they exert in decision-making? Did they allow us free choice
or did they have a bias toward adoption?
worker Barbara Hansen Costigan, in her dissertation, "The
Unmarried Mother--Her Decision Regarding Adoption" (1964),
fact that social work professional attitudes tend to favor
the relinquishment of the baby, as the literature shows,
should be faced more clearly. Perhaps if it were recognized,
workers would be in less conflict and would therefore feel
less guilty about their "failures" (the kept cases).
Heiman, M.D. in "Out-Of-Wedlock Pregnancy In Adolescence,"
Casework Papers 1960, provides evidence of social workers'
bias towards adoption:
caseworker must then be decisive, firm and unswerving in
her pursuit of a healthy solution for the girl's problem.
The "I'm going to help you by standing by while you work
it through" approach will not do. What is expected from
the worker is precisely what the child expected but did
not get from her parents--a decisive "No!" It is essential
that the parent most involved, psychologically, in the daughter's
pregnancy also be dealt with in a manner identical with
the one suggested in dealing with the girl. Time is of the
essence; the maturation of the fetus proceeds at an inexorable
pace. An ambivalent mother, interfering with her daughter's
ability to arrive at the decision to surrender her child,
must be dealt with as though she (the girl's mother)
were a child herself. (Emphasis added)
of us who wanted to keep our babies were warned severely by
social workers that, if we did so, we would be responsible
for paying the entire hospital bill, doctor fees, lawyer fees
and the costs of foster care.
who lost her child to adoption in 1968, shares her experience
with an adoption agency social worker:
son was taken from me at birth, against my will. I was allowed
no contact with him in spite of my pleas because the people
in charge were sure that I was going to eventually be forced
to give him up for adoption even though I had not given
them any definite promise to do so.
finally was taken back to my parent's house when my son
was 12 days old. I went to work almost immediately with
the plan to make some money and raise my son. My mother
eventually agreed to baby sit while I worked. I called the
social worker to tell her the great news and find out where
and when we could pick up my baby. She icily informed me
that she would call me the next day to give me the details.
I remember being thrilled that this was finally going to
be over, that life was going to go on at last, that there
would be no more badgering by this woman about my decision.
following day the social worker called and informed me that
if I thought I was going to pick up my son I would have
to show up with money to pay my hospital bill, his hospital
bill, [our] doctor bills, the maternity home bill, the charges
for the "counseling" she had given me and all costs for
my son to be in foster care. The meter would continue to
run until everything was paid in full, at which time I could
finally bail out my poor little baby. She said this knowing
full well that on her advice my father had taken me to the
county welfare office to apply for welfare to pay these
expenses and the application was approved.
cannot remember the exact amount she demanded but remember
it being more money than I could ever imagine making.
aftermath of surrender, when we returned home, we strongly
felt the absence of our baby. Alone, our arms empty, we grieved
deeply for our lost child. No one ever spoke of our baby again,
no one acknowledged our painful and lonely experience and
no one offered comfort. We knew we were never to speak of
what occurred. We were so shamed and blamed that we obeyed
this dictate for many decades.
American Adoption Congress newsletter article, "Disenfranchised
Grief and the Birth Mother," Nathalie Troland describes our
experience; she says, "The birth mother was not recognized
as a legitimate mourner; the loss of her child was not considered
real." Troland continues:
lives in a world in which mothers are rewarded and others
punished for their fertility; that most people failed her,
that she failed herself; that she did the right thing; that
she did the wrong thing; that she grieves, that grief is
not appropriate; that she is un-natural in her ability to
take such a course; that
she is natural in thinking of her baby before herself or
conversely of thinking of herself before the baby; that
she was, and still is, isolated in her experience; that
her grief cannot be resolved and must somehow be lived with
years following surrender, how did the we fare without our
babies? Was our grief a short-term problem or did the adoption
have lasting ramifications? According to Birthmothers,
Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their
Stories by Merry Bloch Jones:
most birthmothers lost their innocence, self-esteem, and
prospects... many relinquished their trust in others and
their sense of identity within society... many felt that
their most important relationships... were damaged beyond
repair. More than one in five became involved in abusive
relationships... Under the influence of anger and depression,
some set out on paths of self-punishment and self-destruction...
Many became emotionally estranged from everyone who had
been involved... About one fifth developed eating disorders...
More than one in five developed secondary infertility. Most...
remained permanently incapable of trust and intimacy.
incredulous as I reflect on what happened. How could we have
allowed the horrific act that separated us from our children?
It is difficult for us to convey to people, who now live in
a society that values and enforces an individual's civil and
human rights, how it was when our babies were born and taken
from us simply because we were young, vulnerable and without
we have a right to copies of everything relating to the loss
of our babies. This includes original birth certificates and
other agency records that confirm the births of our babies.
Adoption agencies across the country are withholding these
documents, even though we were still the legal guardians of
our children at the time those documents were drafted. This
withholding of documentation occurs even though it appears
to be at odds with the official policy of some agencies. For
example, Patricia Martinez Dorner, in "Adoption Search: An
Ethical Guide For Practitioners," a 1997 Catholic Charities
USA searching manual, states:
also seek information about their children and their adoptive
families through the years. Being able to obtain file information
pertaining to the time of the pregnancy, is reality basing
the documents found in agency files is the original birth
certificate, which in most states is sealed at the vital
statistics level when adoptions are finalized. It is appropriate
to provide a copy of this document to a birthparent, (as
long as it is a named birthparent), at any time. The information
pertains to her and her child and in no way violates
confidentiality. (Emphasis added)
of this statement, we wonder why we are repeatedly refused
copies of the original birth certificate and other agency
records, especially after reunions with our grown children.
of us reject inappropriate terms, such as "birthmother," that
have been forced upon us by the adoption industry. We view
"birth" prefixes as offensive and demeaning. We feel they
diminish and devalue our relationship to our children. We
are not breeders nor live incubators whose only function was
to give birth.
of us are taking back our rightful title--we are the mother
of all of the children we have given birth to, whether lost
to adoption or not. Although we were not allowed to parent
our lost children, we have always loved them and have the
same concerns for them that any other mother would. We surrendered
our children to adoption--we did not surrender our motherhood.
should eliminate stigmatizing labels and misleading terminology.
Mothers who have lost children to adoption are deeply wounded
and have walked long and lonely roads. We are searching for
answers and seek understanding. We are asking society to acknowledge
the truth of our experience and honor our motherhood.
author, Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh, is co-founder of Mothers
for Open Records Everywhere (MORE) at www.geocities.com/moreopenrecords)
and a mother who lost her daughter to adoption in 1966.
Note: The terms "unwed" mother, "birthmother", "birthmom",
"birthmoms", "dear birthparent", "birthparent",
"birthparents", "birthfather" "biological" make
a parent appear to be less than the mother or father they
are. These terms dehumanize and limit the parent's role to
that of an incubator. Using the honest terms "mother",
"single mother" or "natural mother" help
the public to understand why real family members must not
be separated to obtain babies for adoption.