' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: In the Sixties: Was I 'forced' to give up my baby?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In the Sixties: Was I 'forced' to give up my baby?

Lorraine at work, 2 years later. I was engaged to be married.
Was I "forced" to give up my baby? The question lingers in the air today because Dan Rather Reports produced a documentary, “Adopted or Abducted,” about forced adoption that will be aired tonight. Bloggers we know, such as Claudia, of Musings of the Lame, are included, and while Jane and I can't wait to see it, neither cable company that we use, on opposite ends of the country, me on the East Coast, she on the West, carry it, and so alas, we will have to see it later somehow.

But of course I've thought back about that time in the Sixties when I felt I had no choice other than to relinquish. My baby's father was a married man--and not married to me; I was so embarrassed that though I was less than a year out of college, I did not tell my parents, back in Michigan, while I hide in secrecy in Rochester, New York. Who even knew I was pregnant? Only a few: Patrick, the father, my lover; eventually our boss, the
metropolitan editor of The Democrat & Chronicle, the newspaper where I had worked and Patrick still did; two girlfriends, one in Rochester, one in Michigan; and eventually, Mrs. Helen Mura, the social worker.

Was I forced? Well, a gun wasn't held to my head, but I felt I had no choice. I seem to have no pictures of myself from that time; they must exist somewhere, but few were ever taken of me in Rochester, and certainly none while I knew I was pregnant. The closest picture I have of that time is the one above, taken two years later when I was engaged to be married to someone other than Patrick. I had been an emotional wreck, and then, a physical one for a while, with a red rash that would not go away, but here I am smiling at work. Like a lot of other women have stated, more years needed to pass before the whole impact of relinquishing my daughter to hit me. I had not written a word about the baby or adoption, save what I wrote to her when I was pregnant; I lied to doctors about whether I had ever been pregnant, and certainly told no one. I had buried the secret within me. Still, one does laugh and smile now and then; otherwise we'd all be in a looney bin. This shot was taken shortly after I had torn ligaments in my knee, and that is the reason for the full leg cast, and probably why a staff photographer at The Knickerbocker News, where I worked after the baby, snapped the shot.

Here is how I remember that era, from a work in progress, That Hole in My Heart:

copyright (c) Lorraine Dusky 2012

The mores of the times kept a’changin’ with the music, but no cultural shift happens all at once. While the sexual strictures were loosening, and hip young women like myself were supposed to be sophisticated about sex—not only having sex but wildly enjoying it—the heart-breaking irony was that being caught “in a family way” without someone to marry you revealed a society still stuck in the constraints of Fifties. Good girl still didn’t do it. Smart girls didn’t get caught. The lucky girls who did were the ones with boyfriends who married them; it’s estimated that close to a third  (27 percent) of all children born to women between 15 and 29 in the decade between 1960 and 1970 were conceived before marriage.[1] That’s a lot of people having sex outside of marriage but it was, at least in my world, all sub rosa. Even among my girlfriends. If any of them were sleeping with their boyfriends, I did not know about it. 

But to be pregnant and unwed was the cause of high shame and family humiliation. From the women I have talked to, it was the rare parent who was sympathetic to a pregnant daughter’s plight. Girls not so lucky to have someone who was willin’ were sent to live with relatives in another town, shipped off to homes for “unwed mothers,” where they sometimes were encouraged not to use their real names, even with each other, or hid at home and bore the ignominy of their parent’s scornful, hurt, why-did-you-do-this-to-me? gaze. Neighbors whispered, fathers held their heads down, and you, the sinner, prayed for this purgatory to be over. 

Teenagers who wanted to keep their babies were offered zero support and otherwise threatened if they did not give up their babies. Some teenagers had their babies taken from them in the hospitals; their parents did all the arranging and the young teenager realistically had no choice. If her parents were going to kick a fifteen-year-old out on the street—with her baby—if she did not sign the consent papers, what alternative did she have? What other life plan could she have made for herself and her baby?  Some sociologist called surrendering a child during that era was called a “white woman’s disease” as the number of white unmarried mothers who gave up their children is thought to be around 70 percent[2]—some estimates put it at 80 percent, and some as high as 95 percent.[3] 

The pressure to relinquish a child was enormous: single women didn’t have babies, or at least, didn’t keep them; every child had a “right” to two parents, who could supply a better layette, and the life that went with that, than you, poor wretch, could. After World War II and right up thought the Cold War era that I knew, the recurrent message in the media emphasized the nuclear family. Motherhood was idealized, fatherhood was a sign of virility and all were signs of solid citizenship. Though the sexual mores were shifting like the ground below, the image of two-parent family was still paramount, and that is what I held in my weary breast as I faced the reality of being a single mother. As such, I would be a pariah. Who was I to stand up to that? A shaft of wheat in a field being whipped down by the wind does not have a chance to stand straight and strong. I was just another shaft brought low by the winds of the times. My baby would have to be adopted.

No consideration was given at all that a child might prefer to grow up with people who looked and acted like her. Nurture trumped nature, if nature meant a single mother. At the same time, the demand for babies kept rising as “adopting” became increasingly acceptable. Did I doubt it?  I did not have the courage to doubt it. I just knew that I was supposed to do the right thing, and the right thing was giving up my baby. What I regret today is that I was not more of a rebel, that I was not stronger, that I did not find a way to keep her. I have accepted it, yes, but this is a regret I will take to my grave.

No matter how wrong relinquishing her felt, no matter that my very being was recoiling at the idea.
no matter what I knew in her heart, women like myself who had no one to marry them felt we had no choice other than adoption for our children. It was doing the right thing.
          This was the Sixties I knew. It was far removed than the pungent aroma of weed and the vision of nearly naked flower children who would be singing in the mud at Woodstock by 1969. The Sixties that I knew was a time of Playtex rubber girdles and roles for the women as constricting as those girdles. International air travel was opening up, but women didn’t fly the planes, now did they? They served up coffee, tea or me, a catch phrase that became a naughty anthem of the generation that came just a few years after me when The Pill was popped by legions of young women. But that would be later.--lorraine

[1]  Ellison, M. (2003). "Authoritative Knowledge and Single Women's Unintentional Pregnancies, Abortions, Adoption and Single Motherhood: Social Stigma and Structural Violence," in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol 17(3), 2003, page 326.
[2] Mink, Gwendolyn and Solinger, eds., Welfare: A Documentary of History of U.S. Policy and Politics, from Bureau of Public Assistance, Illegitimacy and Its Impact on the Aid To Dependent Children Program, Washington, D.C., 2003, p. 177.
[3] Ellison, M., ibid. Authoritative Knowledge and Single Women's Unintentional Pregnancies, Abortions, Adoption, and Single Motherhood: Social Stigma and Structural Violence, 2003, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17(3): p. 326. 

PS: On another note: my arm is still recovering, and during the process (possibly from being at the computer too much without proper support under my arm, I tore my bicep on that arm; and so now the whole healing process is taking a much more circuitous and lengthy route. Damn.

For more on the Dan Rather program see:  Shining the light on 'forced' adoption at home and elsewhere

Amanda at Declassifed Adoptee has also written about the program: Adopted or Abducted? Things to Keep in Mind Before Getting Upset at Dan Rather's Report 

Never Imagined This
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  1. Hello, this is my firsdt post and I am a first Mother from the 80's

    First I wanted to share that I read somewhere today that you can purchase the show from itues for 1.99. I would assume that would be after it airs. I was so sad when I realized that my cable company didn't carry it either, but at least we have a chance to watch it.

    I also wanted to add, that I have MANY of the same feelings and issues as Moms from the baby snatch era and I wasn't "sent away" and it wasn't kept a secret. Im the culture/community I was raised in I was told many of the same things first Moms who came before me were. It was devastating and changed who I am. I don't really know what I am saying exactly, except that I feel like because I am a younger first Mom that I have to continuously justify the why's of my situation...and I feel I was just as forced into it as anyone else was.

    Love your blog!! Keep up the good work!

  2. I neverwas sent away in 66. I had already had first baby. Then got pregnant again by same person. I wS forced to give my baby up by stepthing. Of course his
    3 kids who had lost their mother to death weren't separated he made sure to keep his kids while forcing me to separate mine. Onfacty mom married this person and became mom to them while her own grandchild was being given away. How screwed up is that!!!

  3. Roni - I am a first mother from the late 80's and I agree with you that many of our feelings seem the same as from the Baby Scoop era. I didn't get sent away but at 17 had little options - my father told me that if I didn't surrender, he would leave us and divorce my mother whom I saw as relatively unable to function in the world without him. So my "selfishness" in wanting to keep and nurture my baby would ruin my mother's life. He was no bluffer and he knew just what to say. The agency counselor felt like my "only friend" at the time. Now I wonder how much of her interactions were prescribed by her training and a goal of my surrender. I am watching the Dan Rather show right now as we speak - maybe the first 15 minutes have passed. So far, it seems well-done.

  4. Wow! Just finished the show - I still think it was pretty well-done - one really interesting part was his interview with a "clerical worker" who worked for years for an adoption agency who corroborated some of the mothers' accounts. While our words should be taken at face value, we all know that people want corroboration. Unfortunately, Claud's story from Musings of the Lame seems to have been edited out at this point - I was really looking forward to hearing her as she is from my era. I hope he'll do a follow-up - there certainly must be enough material for that - certainly more material left on reunion, modern-day coercion etc.. Troy Dunn, from the Locator was prominently featured too. One hour isn't enough!!!!!!!

  5. Can't wait to see the Dan Rather special via itunes tomorrow! Anyway, I am also a first mom from 1985. I can completely relate to the BSE moms even though it had supposedly ended in the 70's. I was pulled out of my high school to attend "pregnancy school." No one except my Mom's mother outside of our immediate family knew of my "condition." I was sent across town to live with a foster family provided by my adoption agency (they were a Mormon family) although I didn't relinquish through LDS...it was a "Methodist" maternity home. Blech. On the occasion that I did return home for a family dinner or to visit, it had to be cleared first so that none of my brother's friends were over, AND it had to be under the dark of night, in my trench coat. (luckily it was still winter time or that would have looked rather suspicious...hm?) Once my daughter was born, my parents insisted it was time to move on and get back to "normal." I had one little polaroid picture of her taken just after delivery, and I carried it with me throughout the house...setting it beside me wherever I decided to sit. It made me mother SO uncomfortable and she asked me to put it away. IT WAS ALL I HAD!!! So, how is my experience much different from another 17 year olds just 10 years prior? Not a whole lot of difference I'd say. There was also a cheerleader from my high school that was a few months pregnant behind me. She also got sent away, although she didn't keep it a secret from anyone. Her parents still wanted her gone. I carry the shame to this very day. I carry the fact that I wasn't good enough for my own child. I'm a good girl. I ended up marrying her birthfather, and we're going on 26 years now. Why did I have to lose my first born?? It doesn't get any easier to live with.

  6. First - Lorraine - I wish you a SPEEDY recovery!!

    2nd - can't get that channel either - but I "see" that a couple of people are watching or finished watching! Any more comments and what they showed... please!! : )

    3rd - WOW! Your current blog post - talk about going back in time... yes, I too "went away" and had to give up my little girl. No choices whatso ever, plus she had a medical condition with her heart - and that's a LOT of $$$ that neither I nor my parents had! But I have found her! Just no reunion, yet - I still hold out for one!! LOL! And heart condition went away as got to her teens! Thank the Lord!

    Great post, Lorraine! Are you writing another book??

  7. Lee, thanks for you post and yes I am trying to write another book, fix my arm and not hurt it more and keep the blog alive.


  8. I think what almost always come through in our stories is someone made us feel unworthy of raising our own children. It doesn't matter if it was the 50's,60's,80's or today. Someone made us feel that there was only one choice. I let my daughter go in 1969. I would never make another Mother feel that her reasons need to be justified to me. In the end we did what we had to at the time. Most of us now realize that the decision was not the right one.

    We can never go back and do it over which is why it is so important for all our stories to be told. I have found that since reunion with my daughter that she has brought back to me the strength I lacked so long ago. Because of her presence in my life I have been able to break that silence that has hung over my family for so many years. I have told them the thruth about how it all felt and now even though I no longer have a relationship with some of them I move forward with no shame and the love of my daughter.

  9. Check out this disgusting website by nasy APs.

  10. Lorraine,
    You are so cute in that picture and I really see your resemblance to Jane.

    To answer your question. Yes, I believe you were forced. You don't need to have had a gun to your head to succumb to overwhelming social pressure.

    I feel especially sorry for those from decades after the BSE and after the sexual revolution. I think they would have an even harder time proving that they were forced. But as I have learned from so many of the blogs and comments, the coercion was still there it was just slicker.

    The more I learn about the whole history of adoption the more I believe that unmarried expectant mothers are simply used as breeders for infertile people.

  11. For the number of hate the child adopters out there, I am horrified.

    As a mother of the late 70s that lost a child to adoption, I can say that nothing had changed after Roe v. Wade when it came right down to being a single parent and under age.

    Try being a single parent and a foster child! That is a treat you can't miss! You have no rights, no family, no permanent home and your rights are severed while you are still too stupid to know what is going on.

    Coercion doesn't have to be from a single person.... it can come from society. And does, frequently.

  12. "No consideration was given at all that a child might prefer to grow up with people who looked and acted like her." When I read this sentence of yours, I was reminded of the time when I and my 43 year old son, newly reunited, were talking and he said, "I understand how things were back in the day and I know you did the right thing, but still, it would have been nice if you had raised me." Well, all that I could do was hold his hand while a big tear rolled down my face, just as it is now, 9 years later. Thank you Lorraine & Jane for this blog and I hope you mend soon.

  13. Joyce, thanks so much.

    We are sometimes told that the blog ought to not offend anybody, but it is impossible for us to write the truth as we have lived it, is offensive to some.

  14. Lorraine, I've actually read this post several times as there was so much that I could relate to. You've written an excellent piece that captures the climate of the era. Those of us who lived the experience were forced to surrender by the guns of shame, poverty, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness due to the lack of familial and societal

  15. I have been thinking a lot about this, so excuse my somewhat insensitive answer.

    Based on this text, you weren't forced, not more than a horse staying behind hot wire, because it has seen other horses touch it.
    You (plural) were forced, but you do not seem to have been enough of a rebel, a maverick to crash into the fences, to find how strong they really were, people usually are not.

    In a Dutch TV show on adoption a few years back, they one very good witness of the maternity home adoption bussiness, she had gotten out with her baby, but it seemed she had been dealt a royal flush:
    -As a foster child she knew how rotten growing up with non-bios can be.
    -As a foster child she did not have to reckon in any way with her family.
    -As the maternity home let pregnant girls take care of the babies waiting for adoption she knew that leaving her baby there was not unakin to leaving a dog in a dog pound.
    -For the same reason she knew that she could take care of a baby.
    - The husband material boy friend (not an adoption pusher), with his family mildly pushing for the maternity home.
    - At 7 months her pregnancy was unexpectedly terminated by a maternity home staff member pushing her "accidentally" off the cellar stairs, mother and child both survived, but this scandal really strengthened her case.

    If that all was needed for a successful rebellion against a milder system, who could blame you? Thy wast not forced, ye were.

  16. Theodore and Gail:

    After finding your thoughtful and encouraging comments (encouraging for me to get the next rewrite done) I added this to the post:

    "What I regret today is that I was not more of a rebel, that I was not stronger, that I did not find a way to keep her. I have accepted it, yes, but this is a regret I will take to my grave."

    Because yes, I will always wish I had found more courage. Individuals react to being adopted in different ways--some seem to handle the disruption in their lives with greater ease, for some it is the tipping point. I feel my daughter falls in the latter case.

    Theodore, I got your meaning just right. But I have a question about the girl in the TV program you write about. You say the pregnancy was "terminated." If the baby died when she was pushed down the stairs, she did not then have a choice to make, whether to relinquish or not. Please explain.

  17. Falling down the stairs can, and did in this case, induce premature parturation, as such the pregnancy is terminated, aborted, ended.
    If that happens because one is pushed on the same day, the due date has been confirmed as being 8 weeks later during a medical check, it is not really a miracle that the child can survive this as well. Terminating a late term pregnancy does not always mean that the child dies.

  18. Theodore, It wasn't that I wasn't tough enough to keep my baby. I have always been willing to defy conventions. I believed, though, that if I kept my daughter, no matter how hard I worked, how committed I was, I would never be good enough for her. I envisioned her as a teenager screaming "why didn't you give me up for adoption."

    I had been raised in a somewhat dysfunctional family and my father was largely absent. I knew I would have had many more advantages if my father had behaved better. I thought adoption would guarantee my daughter would have everything I didn't have and then some.

    I realized later how much my daughter missed. While not perfect, my mother was always there for us; she let us choose our own paths. She was highly educated and introduced her children to ideas, books, plays, music, and the cultural life of a big city.

    I had no idea of the affects of adoption on a child or of the amazing similarities between children and biological relatives. I thought (as I had learned in biology classes) it was all nurture, and no nature.

  19. This is a first mother's forum, it's not a place for the bored or the lonely to hang out and make triggering remarks to mothers.

    We know how it was and we know how it feels now. Being told that we were not srong enough or having other mothers be told that they really were not forced is abusive.

    If you insist on having people like Theodore hang about here then this is not a supportive environment for mothers.

    Jane really doesn't need to be told that she was weak and that it's her fault she lost her child to adoption.

  20. About the issue of "force". There are many ways to manipulate a mother into giving up her child. Guilt is a very powerful emotion, so is the true and deep love of a mother. Being made to feel that giving up your child is the greatest gift you can give her is one way to "force" her to do this.

    In many ways the mothers who gave up their children were stronger than those who did not.

    It is not a question of weakness it is a question of manipulation, circumstance and misguided belief.

    Even to this day I can see that my daughter had an advantage to not growing up as a member of my family. Would I give her up all over again? No definetly would not but I can see that it was advantageous for her because she was not exposed to people literally stabbing themselves in the heart and dying....NEED I GO FURTHER??????

  21. I agree with Kim. It makes me sad when I read so many blog posts and comments from first mothers asking how on earth they could possibly have given up their child for adoption as if they were somehow weak. For those mothers of the BSE I can't imagine how you could have NOT relinquished your child. My n-mother was the last person on earth who wanted to give her child up and yet she did surrender me. This leads me not to believe but to KNOW that there were overwhelming social forces pressing on her.

    Also, I think when you ladies feel that way that you are forgetting what it was really like back in the day. There have been enormous social changes in society in the last 40 to 50 years. I think in general that there is a link between how much power women have in society and the number of adoptions. As the feminist movement affected society, as women's sexuality has been accepted, most 'unwed' mothers are keeping their babies.

    Besides, did you really think back then, when everyone was telling you that you were doing that right thing, that you would still be so affected by it 30, 40 or more years later? I bet not. From what I've heard, you were even expressly told that you would forget about this baby and move on. I doubt many of you realized what the long-term consequences of relinquishment would be (for you or your child). If you had and/or if you had had more support you probably would have made a different choice.

  22. Thank you Robin and Kim. It certainly gets wearisome after awhile to read that some believe that we abandoned our children and did not want to raise them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

  23. I'm a first mother from the late 90's and also an adult adoptee. I hate to say it, but not much as changed since the BSE. I hid my pregnancy until I was in the hospital. One call from my dad to Catholic Charities (in his defense, he honestly didn't know what to do to help me) and they were on me like white on rice to relinquish. When I see the posters from places like Bethany touting how you can graduate from college if you only give up your baby, I want to vomit. 14 years later, I regret that day with all of my heart and am having trouble enjoying my reunion with my own birthmother because of the guilt it brings up.



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