by Karen Wilson Buterbaugh
First published in Eclectica Jul/Aug 01
For some 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.
Sitting 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.
Let me share with you a small part of what I’ve learned since then.
When an adoption takes place, there are three parties involved: the couple who adopts, the child and the child’s natural parents. This is called the adoption triad. Society as a whole prefers to forget the third side of the triangle, the natural parents–especially the natural mother of the child. Sadly, even today, the triad is represented by only two sides of that triangle.
Thirty 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, D.C.
Unlike 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.
For decades 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.
Coercion, Thought Reform, and Maternity Homes
We hear 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?
Felix Biestek, in The Casework Relationship (1957), Loyola University School of Social Work, states that:
Caseworkers 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)
Like 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.”
What 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?
According to Margaret Thayler Singer and Richard Ofshe, respected psychologists and leading experts on thought reform:
…the 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.
Drs. 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 “home” experience.
Thought Reform vs. the Maternity “Home” Experience
Keep person unaware.
Girls 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.
Control their environment and time.
Girls 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.
Create a sense of powerlessness.
Took 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.
Rewards and punishments to inhibit behavior reflecting former identity.
Called “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.”
Rewards and punishments promoting group’s beliefs or behaviors.
Allowed 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 to surrender.
Use logic and authority which permits no feedback.
Director, 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.
It seems clear that all of the thought reform conditions were present during the many months we were forced to hide away in maternity homes.
Rickie Solinger, in Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade (1992), gives us a sense of the maternity home environment:
The 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…
Maternity 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…
What 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?
In many 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:
Parents 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.
And what 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?
Social worker Barbara Hansen Costigan, in her dissertation, “The Unmarried Mother–Her Decision Regarding Adoption” (1964), claims:
The 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).
Marcel Heiman, M.D. in “Out-Of-Wedlock Pregnancy In Adolescence,” Casework Papers 1960, provides evidence of social workers’ bias towards adoption:
The 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)
Those 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.
Yvonne, who lost her child to adoption in 1968, shares her experience with an adoption agency social worker:
My 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.
I 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.
The 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.
I cannot remember the exact amount she demanded but remember it being more money than I could ever imagine making.
In the 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.
In an 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:
She 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 alone.
In the 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.
The Injustice Continues
I am 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 resources.
I believe 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:
Birthparents 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 and healing…
Among 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)
In light 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.
Mothers, Not Birthmothers
Many 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.
Many 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.
Society 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.
Copyright © 2002 Karen Wilson Buterbaugh