' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: When I had my first child, I regret not asking my mother for help

Saturday, May 11, 2013

When I had my first child, I regret not asking my mother for help

First mothers often ask me "wouldn't your mother help you keep your baby?" The unspoken assumption is that if my mother has offered to help me, I would have kept my daughter.

When my surrendered daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1966 white mothers commonly pressured their daughters to give up their babies. Others flat-out refused to help, threatening "If you bring that baby home, you can't live here." Between World War II and Row v. Wade, adoption was THE solution for unwed pregnancies in white middle-class families. These grandmothers-to-be were not unkind; they had bought into adoption mythology and firmly believed that adoption was the best for all concerned.

"No," I answer, "she didn't know about the pregnancy." I add quickly, "I am sure my mother would have helped me; she would not have wanted her grandchild to go to strangers.

My answer comes as a surprise.  Then the follow up question:  "Did she ever find out?"

"No, she passed away never knowing."

Jane's mother
Why didn't I ask? My mother and I had not been close since I left our home in Chicago six years earlier for Fairbanks, Alaska to attend college. I was in Fairbanks when I became pregnant. I went to San Francisco, where I knew no one, had my baby there, and surrendered her. I didn't want to burden my mother. I rationalized she had enough stress in her life. And in truth, I did not want to admit failure, that my life had become so unraveled that I became pregnant by a man who did not want to marry me. I knew in 1966 that adoption was THE WAY unmarried white women handled pregnancy. I took pride that I handled this difficult matter all by myself.

At my mother's funeral in 1988 a few days before her 82nd birthday, regret that I had worked to suppress for almost 22 years burbled up. I was overwhelmed with guilt and sadness. I had deprived my mother of knowing all her grandchildren. At the same time I was thankful she had never found out that I had relinquished a child; it would have been a terrible blow for her to learn  that I had not gone to her in my time of need.

My mother, Helen Rummons, was no milk-and-cookies mother. Born in the early 20th century, she came of age in the jazz age, when women got the vote and challenged every convention. She never adjusted to being a  post World War II housewife. Cleaning and cooking was left to my grandmother (Granny), Clara Rummons, my mother's mother, who lived with us. My mother read to her five children, played card games with them, took them to church, events, plays, museums, parks--and later, when her second marriage failed, worked as a high school teacher.

Grandmother Clara Rummons
I come from a family of independent women. My grandmother was born in 1871 and lived to be 92, the daughter of German immigrants, she was raised on a farm on the harsh Nebraska prairie. She was denied an education because her local high school did not accept girls. As a young woman, my grandmother moved to Lincoln and was whip-smart enough to became a stenographer--even without a high school education--working in the same building where William Jennings Bryan had his law office. "He was a real gentleman, always took his hat off in the elevator," she told me. She married a lawyer and moved with him and their daughter, my aunt, to Oklahoma, where my mother was born. My grandparents separated when my mother was three and my grandmother took my mother and her sister back to Nebraska, supporting them by running a boarding house. My mother never saw her father after they left Oklahoma. Her reaction to his disappearance from her life was not unlike that of some adoptees I've known, grieving his loss and imagining him as a special human being.

My mother was an excellent student and a determined poet, receiving recognition for her work at a young age. She graduated from the University of Nebraska at 19 and the following year, 1926, she began graduate work in Latin and Greek at the University of Chicago. My grandmother moved with her to Chicago.

 Helen Rummons Schaible
My mother never completed her doctorate, abandoning graduate studies after two bad marriages and five children. My parents divorced when I was 15, and after that I had no relationship with my father, who died five years later. My mother supported us--four kids (my older sister had married by then), herself, and my grandmother--on her teacher's salary and a part-time tutoring job. We lived in a reasonably nice apartment; I shared a room with one of my sisters--having my own room was an unimaginable luxury--and bought our clothes, furniture-- everything but groceries--at Sears. With so much on her plate, my mother gave up writing poetry during these years; by the time I was in high school, she was worn-out, depressed, chain-smoking, struggling to get through each day. When I graduated from high school ( I was the fourth child), there was no money for college so I jumped at the chance when a relative living in Fairbanks offered to put me through college at the University of Alaska.

My mother resumed her poetry after her children left home. With the assistance of one of my sisters, she self-published four books of poetry and prose.

First Mother Ceres
She may not have been a warm and fuzzy mom, but she was rare for her time.Very few women got Master's Degrees then, especially from a prestigious school like the University of Chicago. What she did instill in us was a love of the arts. She read us the children's classics, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh (the real one, not the Disney version), all the Oz books, many others. She amused us on long walks telling us about the Trojan War, Ceres who lost her daughter through abduction, many other timeless stories. Although money was tight, she took us to plays at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Riverview Amusement Park, the Indiana Dunes, a walk down State Street at Christmas time to see the decorated department store windows. She taught us values through example, speaking against segregation and racism, donating to the poor, championing those treated unjustly. She checked the arithmetic on restaurant bills and called the waitress' attention to errors. She taught us to say "please" and "thank you" and corrected our grammar. (Good grammar was important to my mother. She wrote notes to the nurses during her long hospital stay before her death, chiding them for telling her to "lay" down. "It's lie down," she wrote. "I'm not a hen." She could not talk because of a tube in her throat.)

Like most children, I suppose, growing-up I did not appreciate my mother. At times, I desperately wanted to be in a "normal" family  like I saw on the TV at the neighbor's. (We didn't get a TV until 1957; they cost too much and my mother thought the quality of the programs was poor). Even without a TV, I watched too many family sit-coms.  One of the reasons for giving up my daughter was so that she would have a "normal" family like on TV-- two parents, a successful dad and a stay-at-home mom.

Over the years, though, I've come to realize that I was fortunate in the growing up that I did have. Unlike many women of my generation, I did not have to struggle against being trapped in the life of a 1950's household because I had never been in one. Of course I would go to college; of course I could have a profession. Of course I could discuss something other than fashion or make-up or how to get stains out of clothes.

More deeply, I realized that no matter how difficult it was for my mother, she was always there for us. Her commitment created an unbreakable bond in our family. My siblings and I have had reunions since 1975; we get together--all of us, spouses, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, every three years for a week. We began at one of our homes, but now that our family is greatly enlarged we stay in hotels or camp in national parks. Everyone looks forward to these reunions. Reunions like ours are rare I've learned. While many families have reunions, it is often an obligatory, one day affair.

My grief for my lost daughter was acute during these get togethers; I was painfully aware that I was living a lie, that someone was missing. Since our reunion Rebecca has come to a couple of our reunions. I hope she comes to more.

In the summer of 1997, I was helping Amy, the oldest daughter of the three I raised, plan her wedding.  I opened my mother's books, thinking I might find a poem suitable for the wedding. As I read the poems, I was consumed with sadness at the thought that Rebecca might never know of her grandmother's poems. Rebecca and I reunited several months later and I shared the books with her. In the fall of 1998, my sisters and I endowed a sonnet contest named for my mother run by Poets and Patrons of Chicago. Rebecca lived near Chicago and came to the ceremony honoring my mother, the only one of my children to do so.

I regret not asking my mother for help. I think though that perhaps in a perverse way it was the tough-mindedness I inherited from her--or learned by her example--that caused me not to ask.

A poem my mother wrote shortly before her death in 1988.


There will be a time for remembrance, a
          time for being forgotten.

My children will remember--those dear

Perhaps they'll get together as we did when
               I was alive.

Perhaps they'll speak of me, with smiles,
               I hope, not tears.

They must go on into the unguessed years.

May the bright bird of joy, with
          shimmering wings,
Fly ever before them, flashing into the sun.

Let foolish things I said and careless
          thoughtless things
I did sometimes, mellow in their

Do not ask whether the race was lost or
Say only, if you can, "it was well run."

Helen Lacy Rummons Schaible
1906 - 1988

Poets and Patrons

Family Reunions: Distorted by Adoption
Can feminism be hereditary?
To understand ourselves, we must know where we came from
Normal in one family may be seen as abnormal in another


  1. It's such a lovely tribute to your mother.

  2. Great post, Jane, it makes it easy to understand where you got your backbone from--your mother and grandmother. And you look like them too.

    We are lucky to have you in our corner.

  3. This was a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing more of your personal story. It was interesting to then link to the post about your granddaughters and how they are carrying the feminist mantle into the young adult generation.

  4. This is nice, truly.

    I am glad you have made peace with your decision not to tell your Mom of your pregnancy & decision to place your child for adoption.

    In some ways you have the blessings of not knowing how or if she would have stood by you. There is peace in that too.

    I cannot give my parents the same pass. I did seek help and was denied.

    I also don't chalk it up to the adoption kool-aid. They are educated and otherwise compassionate folks who simply couldn't or didn't want to help raise another child or support me in my wish to parent.

    Selfish, self-focused and cruel? Maybe.

    Either way, the end result is the same. I chose to give my child away to adoption because I didn't believe I could do it without their support.

    I DO blame my parents along with the young man who impregnated me and his immediate family.

    I blame myself too but am learning to forgive myself.


  5. Thanks for being so honest Jane. I enjoyed reading your post.

  6. Beautiful Poem. The story was sad as well as touching. I was estranged from my mother. She died when I was 36 and I've tried to share with my daughters the grief I feel at not pursuing the relationship and being gracious and loving to my mom when she was alive

  7. Jane you wrote:
    "I am sure my mother would have helped me; she would not have wanted her grandchild to go to strangers".

    After reading about your mother you might be right.

    But I prefer your statement to read "I really hope my mother would have helped me: I don't think she would have wanted her grandchild to go to strangers."

    My mother said "You can not bring a baby home to this house". I know my mother bought into the thinking adoption is best for the baby and the mother. I do not believe it was because she cared about the neighbors. It was becasue she was convinced it was best for me and my daughter. Oh heavens was she dead wrong!
    But when I hear women say my mother would have helped me it gets me kind of ticked off. How do you know if you never asked??? It's like my mother was so far superior than your mother. Of course that is not what you are saying, it's just how I emotionally am effected by your response.
    My mother changed so much in the last 25 years of her life. She was a wonderful woman and one of the things I loved about her most was the fact that she could evolve. We never spoke of the adoption again but we spoke about every other controversial subject going. So if If I looked back 29 years later, after reunion, I would be reflecting on a different woman than the mother who would not allow her grandchild into her home.

  8. Barbara, You are right. When I told my mother five years after the fact of relinquishment, she said that she and my father had actually talked about this and more or less decided that they would take the baby and raise her with me, and I would be able to work. But...this came after her giving me so much grief over my leaving home in the first place (only bad wild women did that, I was supposed to live at home until I got married!!!), and grief from my father about going to college at all that all I could sense would be their disappointment and I-told-you-so attitude and strict condemnation. When my mother said that I thought, that's interesting but you had already made it impossible for me to feel welcome with a baby.

    I didn't hold it against her, obviously, or even much ponder on it, I was just glad she was supportive of my going public at a time when it was so verboten to talk about being a woman who gave up a child. The year 1976 when I first came out in a magazine piece and in a courtroom was light years away from today, and still woman are in the closet because of shame.

    My mother saying that then was much like the adoptive parents, who after years of instilling the idea that we are your only parents, never using the term "other mother" but only "birth mother," making it clear that there is no room for another kind of parent, being offended if the words "real mother" fall from the adoptee's lips then says, Oh, you want to search. Go ahead, we think it's a good idea...if you feel the need to do that....

    Right. How do you think the adoptee then feels?

  9. Thanks, Lorraine. It may have worked differently in your home but the "raise the baby with me" of the time almost always turned into the grandmother becoming the mother and the mother becoming some weird mix of sister or aunt. It may have been better for the adoptee to not be given to strangers but from the mothers I know, that had to endure that life, it was horrid.
    Today grandmothers are often helping their daughters while allowing them to be the decision makers and true mothers. The grandmothers are child care providers.

  10. Barbara,
    In the early 70's when I was practicing law, I saw the "grandparents take over" syndrome several times. The daughter allowed her parents to take the child because she had no other resources. In other cases, the grandparents essentially kicked her out and forced her to leave the child with them.

    When she got her life together and wanted to take over, the grandparents resisted and went to court for full custody which the judge gave them.

    Today the cases would go to mediation and hopefully the parties would learn to work together for the benefit of the child.

  11. Um, I am unsure of posting this because I don't necessarily think this is the right place to go with this concern, but, since it was brought up...

    My mother is a bit old fashioned in the same vein as those parents of unwed mothers who kept their child in the 1970's... I am currently living with her and my daughter. I want to finish school and get a job where I can be self-sufficient and provide for my daughter. My question, since it was brought up, is: how should I best deal with issues of authority? On the one hand, I feel guilty if I try to exert my authority as my daughter's mother because I do not provide the material means as a mother should (in some ways, I suppose, I don't feel entitled to parent)... on the other hand, I really resent, and feel uncomfortable with, being pushed into the role of 'older sister'.

    Again, my apologies if this was not the best place for asking this question.

  12. Dear Anonymous: When I read your comment this morning I could sense your need to talk to someone about this situation. Are there any groups of other young mothers in the area where you might find some common support and communication? Some towns have such social services. I don't know where you are, but I remember hearing about one in Salem, OR.

    Turning to the situation at hand, have a serious--non confrontational--sitdown conversation with your mother and tell her how you feel and what role you want to play. Finishing school--high school or college--is a goal your mother almost certainly supports, and it is only natural that since she is in the role of major care-taker (I am assuming this since you are in school and gone much of the day) that you feel devalued as your child's mother. You may find when you talk to your mother that she also has issues that she needs to say to you; she may feel you are shirking some responsibility that she feels you could take over. She is, after all, thrust into the role of nanny to her granddaughter.

    Have this conversation before the resentment in you builds more. Find a time when you won't be interrupted and neither of your are tense and already angry. One last tip that works for all such discussions: Don't start out accusatory, by saying something like: You do this and you do that. Start out by saying how you feel about what is going on. Instead of "You want to be the baby's mother!" something like, "I know I am still in school, but I feel you won't let me be her mother. What can I do to change the situation? Someday we won't be living here and I want her to know me as her mother, not her big sister..."

    She may want you to assume more responsibility for the baby and need some time off herself. If you are in college you may need to cut back on the number of credits you are taking each semester.

    When it is not done in anger, honest communication often works wonders. You can email me at forumfirstmother@gmail.com and let me know how it goes. You are not completely alone.

  13. Jane, your mother was a great beauty. I regret not confiding in my own Mother. I can say now that I believe she would have urged me to keep my baby.



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