' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: When you give up a child--Jane's story

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

When you give up a child--Jane's story

When I was in the hospital after my daughter Rebecca's birth, I began crying inconsolably. I told a nurse/aide, whoever she was, I was afraid that the people who adopted my daughter wouldn't understand her soul. The nurse/aide shook her head puzzled; it made no sense to her, or frankly, to me either. But the thought did not leave me for some time.

Yet unlike other natural mothers, I never considered therapy. Losing my daughter was something I had to get over by gritting my teeth and trying to forget. A few days after my daughter was born in San Francisco in 1966, my social worker suggested that I find a job. Through a temporary agency I got a job within a month at Blue Cross to assist in Medicaid fraud investigations. I tallied procedures as a nurse read them off from bills doctors had submitted.

In the weeks after her birth, I thought of my daughter, but more often I looked backwards, fixated on where I had gone wrong. Why did this happen? I pondered, trying unsuccessfully to explain myself to myself.

One day as I was taking the bus to work from the rundown apartment hotel where I lived, I looked out the window, trying to figure out why the bus was going so slow. Cars clogged the road, and I noticed each held only one person, a white male at the wheel. The bus passengers were almost exclusively women and people of color. It became absolutely clear to me that day on the bus that white men had the money and the power, and that women could never control their own lives until they had an equal place in society. Like the men at the wheel in control of their cars, the father of my baby had control over whether I could raise my child. When he decided not to marry me, I had to give up my baby so that neither she nor I would face the slings and arrows of a condemning society. Although I had a college degree, as a woman, I was employable only at jobs which barely paid enough to support me.

A few days later, I received a Christmas card from my sister, Lucy, who lived in Orange County, California. I arranged a visit and left San Francisco in the middle of January, heading south on a Greyhound bus. I spent the next eight months with my sister and her husband. I did not tell them why I had been in San Francisco. She assumed I went there like other young people because then, was THE place to be then.

My sister and I did have long conversations about family, current events, movies, school, everything--all of which took my mind off the past and helped me think about the future. While I had fantasized about going to law school over the years, it had seemed like an unattainable goal. The women lawyers I knew had been discouraging, perhaps unintentionally; law school was demanding and jobs were difficult to obtain. I remember a college classmate telling me that if you got to law school, people will think you're a lesbian and you will never find a husband. Now I considered that if the best I could do was ride a bus to a minimum wage job, I was at about as low as I could be. I had nothing, no job, no husband, no baby, what did I have to lose by trying? I became determined to go to law school.

In September, 1967, I took a Greyhound bus north to Eugene, Oregon and the University of Oregon School Law. I was one of five women in my entering class of 80 plus students. I burned my way through school, graduating first in my class. I had had little interest in dating after I lost my daughter, but this changed when I met my future husband within a few weeks of enrolling--so much for the college classmate's warning! We married in the middle of my second year, I told him about my daughter the night we married, and we celebrated our 47th anniversary this past New Year's Eve.

After graduation, I worked in a small law office. Among my cases, I represented people under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I joined NOW and the Oregon Women's Political Caucus. Later I became the Equal Employment Opportunity Officer for the State of Oregon. I worked tirelessly for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and for equal employment opportunity for women. Arguing with opponents of the ERA was like arguing with opponents of opening records, so convinced they are of the old adage, Woman, thy name is frailty. During this time, I had three more daughters.

Barbara Jordan with Bella Abzug and Rosalynn Carter
In 1977, a day after Rebecca's eleventh birthday, I was a delegate to the National Women's Conference in Houston. The event brought together 20,000 women from all over the country, including several first ladies, elected officials, writers, business people, and others for the goal of developing a plan to achieve equality for women. The conference was not without dissenters. Delegates from southern states and Utah opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, legalizing abortion, as well as other feminist goals. The Mississippi delegation included a man who instructed the women delegates on how to vote.

Adoption reform was not on the agenda. When feminists did discuss adoption, it was only to state how tragic it was that women did not have access to safe, legal abortions. I was an early subscriber to MS.--Gloria Steinem was one of its founders--but the only article I recall seeing on adoption was "Adoption Runs in My Family," a positive take on adoption by an adoptee. I wrote a letter to the editor, pointing out the pain natural mothers suffer and arguing that feminists should support single mothers in keeping their babies. I received a form letter by return mail. I am not buying Gloria Steinem's recent autobiography.*

During this time, the 1970's and 80's, natural mothers like Lorraine and adoptees on the East Coast were writing and speaking out about adoption loss and the need to know their lost children, or the adoptees' absent mothers. I was working full time and never watched daytime TV; with three children I had little time for TV in the evenings. I barely had time to read newspapers. I knew nothing about the memoirs penned by mothers and adoptees; I never heard of ALMA, CUB, or AAC.**  I knew little of this new frontier in civil rights, and I never mentioned my lost daughter to anyone.
Jane (in the middle) at the WA capitol, Olympia, in 2013

All this changed in 1997--two decades after Houston--when my 31-year-old daughter contacted me. My activism now took a new turn: adoption reform. A year later, I appeared in a full-page ad in 1998 in the Oregonian supporting a ballot measure to give adoptees the right to have copies of their original birth certificates. The measure passed with 57 percent of the vote. In 2013 I testified in favor of original-birth-certificate access for Washington-born adoptees. More recently I was on a legislative advisory committee that help change Oregon laws to make it easier for natural mothers to access their children's adoption file. I am working on legislation to give mothers time after the birth of their child to decide upon adoption. I have also written articles, letters, and this blog, and appeared in the media supporting adoption reform.

Since my reunion I have participated in support groups and met many natural mothers which has been invaluable in coming to terms with Rebecca's adoption. Activism has been another form of therapy. I am happier lighting candles moving forward than looking back, cursing the darkness.--jane
* Lorraine here: When Jane was writing her letter to MS., I was already frustrated by the editors' lack of interest in what happens to women after they give up a child--or the impact of sealed birth records. I'd proposed pieces about our adoption issues over the years but never got anywhere; yet Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmopolitan immediately was interested in 1973 (!), and that is why my first piece on adoption appeared there. While MS. would run articles on blue-collar women's low wages (true), the editors (largely from good women's schools and their ilk) did not want to know about the messy lives of women who were stupid enough to get into "trouble" and did not have the wherewithal to have an abortion. Gurley Brown did not go to a "good" school; and she empathized with us.

**Adoptees Liberation Movement Association, Concerned United Birthparents, American Adoption Congress. Learning of ALMA, which means "soul" in Spanish, struck a chord, as I remembered how that was what I focused on shortly after my first daughter was born.
The enduring pain of adoption loss
When you give up a child...

The Equal Rights Amendment: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex."
National Women's Conference

Lost Daughters: Writing Adoption From a Place of Empowerment and Peace
"Lost Daughters Anthology is a tough book for mothers who relinquished to read because whatever we may have told ourselves about the “good” reasons to let our children be adopted, these poignant, sad, moving essays belie that with the sheer force of a body blow. I found myself with tears in my eyes as soon as I started reading, and they didn’t totally dry up until long after the last page. Taken in one gulp these writers remind us that being adopted is the singular aspect of their lives out of which everything else flows—just as it is the opposite side of the coin is for first mothers like myself: birthdays, family trees, motherhood, familiar traits, loss."--Lorraine from her review



  1. I have often wondered why natural mothers have largely been forgotten by the feminists. One would think the taking of womens' babies by other women would be a rallying cry of feminists. Ironically, feminists who are usually pro-choice have basically ignored a group of women who have had little or no choice in losing their child (to another woman). (That's actually a sick and twisted irony.)

    Women have allowed natural mothers to be "erased", as if we have never existed. I don't understand why women have allowed other women to be shamed and demonized the way "birth mothers" have been and continue to be.

    Why aren't feminists enraged that women are still using other women as brood mare breeding vessels to produce a commodity that can be bought for approximately $30,000. Why haven't feminists or other women advocates been mad as hell over the shaming, controlling, and profiting from the sexuality and suffering of birth mothers?

    Thank you, Jane and Lorraine, for your courage, strength, and bravery, as you continue to shine light onto the dark and crooked path that first mothers have had to walk. Thank you for inspiring us and giving some of us the courage to come out of our closet with our own stories and thank you for instilling the will to try to bring about change.


  2. Jane,
    You were very involved in politics in those days. Those such as Steiner and others who were speaking out for women weren't speaking for us. I did send her an email asking for her support in something called third wave? This was after my reunion in 92. Basically, she sent me a response that showed me adoption wasn't an issue.
    I never got involved in that arena as I saw they were not representing us. Instead, I remember the issue of adoption being an talked about as a way to make a family. When women want to make a family with someone else's child and ignore that very fact that child has lost someone in their life very early on without addressing the loss issue would never get my support.
    But again in 1966 we young women were fodder for the adoption community.

  3. Jane, your story is even more remarkable than I understood it to be. Your energy, strength, determination and passion (and intelligence!) are admirable. You forged past the stigma of unwed motherhood without the support of fellow feminists (that's a revelation to me, how surprising and sad that was the case). Congratulations on all your accomplishments, and on being an inspiration.

  4. I have always contended--after the brush off at MS. on our issue--that feminists who were the spokespeople ignored us because too often they, and their friends from the intellectual and often wealthy class who went to good schools, were not only the ones who might eventually adopt (should they need to) but also, we were NOCD. (Not Our Class, Dear) The disgrace we felt was so endemic in society--only trashy girls actually got pregnant, right?--that even those who should have been our staunch supporters looked away. This alone makes the point about how society--and our families--felt about the shame we engendered.

    Rickie Solingier was the exception in writing about the issue, but when I tried to talk to her about how MS. ignored the issue, she just poo-pooed that idea herself, and in the process made me feel (along with others) that we really didn't know what we were talking about,--ie, we must be wrong. Her attitude was: The intellectual feminists couldn't have ignored us then! So while her books are valuable as a record of the times that no one else has written so well, she herself reeks of intellectual superiority and in the process manages to put down both natural mothers and adoptees. I am not alone in my feeling about her.

    Imagine my surprise one day when I was reading one of her books to find myself quoted from The New York Times, but referred to as a "young birthmother."

    At that point where she quotes me, I'd already won a couple of prestigious awards for magazine journalism, had published two other books, had been reunited with my daughter and talked about the issue on national television. I was 41 at the time I had been quoted in the Times. But I wasn't speaking as an academic--I was one of them, so I could be dismissed as a "young birthmother." Who might be living in the trailer park at the edge of town.

    Betty Friedan was not part of the MS. crowd, and in the 80s I got to know her personally. She was spot on in her feelings about our issue, natural mothers, sealed records. What I remember so vividly her saying is that adoptive parents don't want anything to do with the original parents--until the child doesn't turn out the way they want. Then, she added, it's all the fault of poor genes. I know she was speaking from knowing many adoptive parents, who would talk freely in front of her, and say things we would never be privy to. I appreciated her for that.

    Friedan sometimes gave women personally a lot of grief, she flirted with men (including my husband) shamelessly, but on the issues herself, she was authentic and warm, and not in the least pretentious.

  5. I used to admire feminists and considered myself one -at least as far as equal pay, education, and universal healthcare- but when some of the feminists of today don't see anything wrong with rich women using poor women as surrogates or fetal tissue donors- that is truly frightening to me.

  6. And it's not just feminists but others who you would think would be advocates for the oppressed. Several years ago I was talking to an Oregon ACLU staff attorney about legislation to give mothers time and information to decide on adoption. He said the ACLU might well oppose the legislation because it would "infringe on reproductive choice"! The ACLU in New Jersey fought open records measures for years, claiming it was a violation of privacy.

    A small victory -- several years ago I was at a fundraiser for Democratic women running for office talking to one of the candidates for Portland City Council who was in the legislature, Mary Nolan. An adoptive mother, she told me she would absolutely oppose any bill to allow mothers time to decide after delivery. "A woman has nine moths to think it over; she doesn't need any more time."

    I sent emails to all the mothers I knew in Oregon urging them not to vote for her and to tell their friends. Some responded that they had done so. She was defeated; I don't know if my emails made a differ4enc but I hope so.

    1. Hey Buddy--of course your emails made a difference. !

      That comment was so unthinking and unfeeling. Let me guess--the woman was er, barren? And had no idea what it felt like to actually have a baby.

  7. @Jane I admire the energy you and Lorraine have to fight for causes Like you in your law school class, I was one of only 9 women in my medical school class Kids today take it all for granted-and that's the way it should be,I guess when we're fully equal I left after 3 years and went from being considered something more than I was by society to something less than I was when I started working at low-paying jobs-and I was the same person all along

  8. Lorraine, this is so interesting! I had similar experiences with Ms.Solinger. While her books are a valuable chronical of part of adoption history, I think she just used birthmothers to further her own agenda, and never really understood.

    One incident when I first met her was her telling me she had never met a mother who gave up a child for adoption until after she wrote her book. I said I bet she did but they did not talk about it; she just could not imagine this in her class. Also said she got married "young" for her group at 28!Talking to her I felt like she was studying me like some rare specimen of working class woman she had never personally interacted with before being put under the microscope.

    But the worst was at a conference where she was presenting, and the subject of abortion came up, a birthmother or adoptee in the audience mentioned she had a friend who deeply regretted having an abortion. Ms. Solinger went ballistic on her, ranting that this was a lie, that women never regret abortion, this was just right to life propaganda and on and on....The woman who made the statement was not arguing that abortion should not be legal or anything else, just pointing out that some women regret it just as many regret surrendering a child. Ricki Solinger came across as rude and more than a little fanatic.

    I never could stand Ms. or Gloria Steinem who is now telling us we all should vote for Hillary because she is female. I would vote for any politician based on gender. Margaret Thatcher was female too.

    Very few wealthy intellectual white feminists "got" our issue because they never associated with "girls like us". On the other hand my friends in the 70s who ran a women's lesbian feminist bookstore got it just fine. They understood the oppression and exploitation of unwed mother because they had their own experience with being "the wrong kind of woman."

    1. Maryanne, thanks for validating my experience. Was that the conference at St. Bart's you are speaking of? You, Mirah and I were all there--actually sitting together during Solinger's panel, right? That is where I spoke up about feminism ignoring us, and just got put down. I seem to have a vague memory of that incident you mention.

      I finally wrote for MS. about ten years ago--about RU486, the abortion drug and some other stories. And they favorably reviewed my book, Still Unequal: The Shameful Truth about Women and Justice in the 90s so I have no beef with it currently, but it seems so inconsequential--does it still exist?

      But in the early days, it was a small coterie of women who ran the place, outsiders they did not know need not bother trying. I don't dislike or like Steinem, and she did have a big leadership role in 2nd Wave feminism, and she was and is a good speaker, her recent misspeak notwithstanding. I was living alone in NYC at the time of the Fifth Avenue march and I went.

    2. I'm more pissed of with Madeline Albright for repeating her comment "There's a special place in hell for women who don't support women." I find it hard to think she really believes that. At least I hope not.
      What about women who support Phyllis Schafly? I suppose the answer to that question could be that Phyllis Schafly doesn't support women. But then . . .

    3. Lisa, why do you find Albright's comment so offensive? If women don't help each other who do you think will?

    4. Meryl, talking to voters like that is just going to put people off, whether they are men or women. What Albright said was very bad, and what Gloria Steinem said was even worse! It is not good for Hillary's campaign. I was very surprised at both of them! Luckily, they have both apologized.

      Everybody makes mistakes, but they both will have to be more diplomatic in what they say, if they want to support Hillary. They cannot be flippant in insulting young female voters, or any female voters.

    5. The problem is that Hillary has not put forth positions or programs that appeal to young women. Calling these women ignorant or disloyal doesn't help.

      As far as our issue goes, Hillary is not a supporter of keeping natural families together. When she was First Lady, she got into the middle of the much-publicized Illinois case, of Baby Richard, siding with the adoptive parents. The baby's mother had been conned out of her son while the father was out of the country. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled for the natural parents. At last report, the boy was doing well.

      Hillary did not oppose the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 passed during Bill's administration. That Act has resulted in thousands of mothers losing their children unnecessarily. These children have not fared well in substitute care, many ending up in prison. A disproportionate number of these families were poor and black.

      I definitely agree that women should help each other. I'd like to see Hillary offer concrete programs to benefit women, particularly poor and minority women. I'd also like her to offer ways to end the wars which are killing women and children whose only sin was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


  9. When it comes down to it if a woman needs to use a woman for what she wants or thinks she needs they do women hurt women. Disgusting...

  10. Yes, that was the conference, at St. Barts. Solinger was very dismissive of us, I thought. Also I would say she is not really pro-choice but pro-abortion as always the best feminist choice, and that her whole agenda was about promoting abortion, supporting birthmothers and her involvement with CUB was only tangential to that.

    Good that Betty Friedan was more sympathetic.

    In my previous comment I meant to say.". I would NOT vote for any politician based on gender." One little word makes a big difference!

    No idea if MS. still exists. Magazines in general are dying out and replaced by the internet.

    1. It always pays to be nice. Especially in the age of the internet.

      MS. does still exist in print, and on the net.

  11. Thank you Jane for sharing your story. You and Lorraine have done so much for adoption reform, especially during an era when the subject of 'adoption' was considered 'secret and taboo'. I can't imagine how difficult that really was during that time, very courageous.

    Every story I read or hear about a young women relinquishing their child is so sad to me, but when you said you were "afraid that the people who adopted your daughter wouldn't understand her soul", that just gripped my heart. (tears)

    I appreciate this blog so much, because their isn't many places for First Mothers to 'vent'. I have really started to 'tune-in' to adoption issues here, and have learned so much from you and Lorraine. Hope you keep this blog going because it has become one of my 'life-lines' to understanding the issues from all sides of this difficult and sensitive 'adoption world'. Thanks!

  12. We're in the political season again and I love how all the politicians from both sides suck up to everyone and then forget about us when they're in office. I don't know who I'll vote for-there's something I like about each one and also something I don't like about each . I'm no expert on politics-but I do vote- except the year my son was born-it was right before election day Maybe that's why I've been having flashbacks and weird dreams lately



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