Mothers only in secret

Women who gave up their children for adoption were expected to get on with their lives, yet many never could.

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She was a young, unmarried college student and it never occurred to anyone involved to regard her pregnancy with anything other than shame. So she went to a maternity home to have her baby in secret and then relinquish it immediately for adoption. After, it was expected, she would return to her carefree life as a college student.

But it didn't quite happen that way. Back on campus, the young woman found, "I wasn't happy anymore." Years later she would recall, "I mean, I realized there was something really wrong."

Ann Fessler interviewed more than 100 women to assemble the emotional and deeply moving oral histories revealed in The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden Story of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decade Before Roe v. Wade.

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The backgrounds of these women are varied as are their individual stories. Some had parents who screamed ugly words at them when they learned of their pregnancy; others were blessed with tender family support. Some deeply loved the fathers of their unborn children; others barely knew them.

But today almost all agree on one heartbreaking point: It was unbelievably painful to be separated from their children. Yet almost no one around them seemed willing to acknowledge such emotions. Often, in fact, the new mothers were treated as if they had no feelings whatsoever. Neither, in most cases, did anyone ever suggest to them that keeping their child was even an option.

"They felt they could erase it, but we just aren't made that way," says one of the moment when she signed the documents. "It's unnatural to be separated from your child that way." For many, there was no moving on. "I had my seventieth birthday not too long ago, and it still colors my life," reports another.

If the young mothers were unprepared and ill-informed, so was society itself, it would seem. Intentions were of the best; there were many families eager to adopt babies and there were young women having children out of wedlock. Pairing them seemed only natural.

In fact, the number of non-family adoptions in the United States soared after World War II. It is estimated that between 1945 and 1973 (when abortion was legalized in the US) more than 1.5 million young women surrendered their babies for adoption. Many went to maternity homes where pregnant women could live in secret until they gave birth (sometimes under assumed names and generally insulated from the outside world by lies.) Often, all expense were paid at these homes - provided the women agreed to relinquish any rights to their children at birth.

Fessler, who is an adoptee, begins the book with her own experience. She knew little about her birth mother and had never tried to seek her out. One day, however, as an adult, she was approached by a woman who thought she might be her mother.

She wasn't. But the woman told Fessler of the pain and loss she'd felt every day of her life since surrendering her own child. Fessler's birth mother, she suggested, "probably worries every day about what happened to you." It set Fessler wondering about, and eventually, talking to, other birth mothers.

Fessler does finally, at the book's conclusion, reunite with her own mother. It's an experience in sharp contrasts to many of the stories in the book but that's one of the more fascinating things about "The Girls Who Went Away" - the variety of voices and tales.

Another of the book's strengths is the fact that Fessler offers no prescriptions. She doesn't tell us that adoption is right or wrong. She simply lets her material speak to us directly - and it does so powerfully - of the unresolved emotions that often last a lifetime.

If You Could See Me Now is a memoir offering a rather different take on adoption. Novelist Michael Mewshaw writes of the day that a young woman called him suggesting he might be her father.

He's not. But he knows almost immediately who the caller is. She's the daughter of his former girlfriend who became pregnant during college and decided to move out of state, have her baby, and then surrender her to an adoption agency. Mewshaw was not the father but he was in love with the mother and lived with her, supporting her throughout the pregnancy.

Unfortunately, although Mewshaw's story begins with the topic of adoption, it ultimately devolves into a vendetta against the former girlfriend, whom he seems never to have forgiven for dropping him after her child was born.

However, on the way to skewering his ex, Mewshaw does tell a tender tale of an awkward but talented young man, utterly smitten by a sophisticated young woman. His memories of first love have a bittersweet innocence to them and the story of his girlfriend's pregnancy - and the shame, secrecy, and lies surrounding it - poignantly echoes many of the tales in Fessler's book.

Also, however unintentionally, Mewshaw's story does serve to reinforce one of the central themes running through "The Girls Who Went Away": It may all have happened a long time ago, but the mere passage of years is not enough to erase such feelings.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to kehem@csps.com.

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