She could have been any of the veiled Afghani women written about in the U.S. media in the months following September 11. But the woman I stood listening to one Saturday afternoon last fall in Sacramento, California was an American woman whose veil was invisible, whose story had been silenced and hidden.
Her child had been taken away. It was as if it had died. But, there was no funeral, no wailing wall for her to go to pound her fists and cry! The woman was expected to just get on with her life and pretend that she hadn't just given her child away.
With 30 some years of internalized emotion still causing her voice to quake when she spoke of signing her name on the relinquishment papers, the 56-year old woman in Sacramento spoke of the pain and grief of losing her daughter to adoption. As I listened, I was reminded that here in the U.S. we often deal with loss by covering up our emotions. I was also reminded that the U.S. was bombing Afghanistan because we lost over 3,000 very dear people. No one, though, ever went to war for these women whose losses were in the millions of newborn lives.
Two-hundred fifty thousand women per year relinquished a child to adoption in the 60s. That number fell to 150,000 per year in the 1970s, 100,000 per year in the 1980s, and 50,000 per year in the 1990s. In the year 2001, there were approximately 51,000 surrenders in the U.S.
There were more adoptions in the 60s than in the year 2001 for a number of reasons. More teenage girls and young women were getting pregnant then because the birth control pill, relatively new on the market in the 60s, was not readily accessible until late in the decade. Sex education classes were not part of the curriculum in most schools. Few got abortions, which studies show are easier on a woman than giving up a child for adoption, because abortion was illegal in most places. Before Roe vs. Wade, women basically had no choice except to get married, have the child, and give it up for adoption. Most young women were not able to make legal decision until they turned 21 in the 60s. And the self-esteem of many young women was low because of the rules set forth by the strong patriarchal society of the times which held a lot of them back from developing fully as human beings.
If even half of the women who gave their children up for adoption in the 60s had banded together and cried, their voices would most surely have been heard. But they had not been taught nor encouraged to use their voices. So, societal dictates including puritanical attitudes about sex and women and pregnancy helped silence the voices of so many women for so many years.
When one loses a child or a mother or father or husband to death, there is a funeral and a time of mourning. That hasn't usually been the case for most of the 6,000,000 birthmothers in the U.S. who have lost their children to the U.S. adoption system. Adoption is looked upon as a single mother's duty for getting herself into that situation to begin with rather than as a deeply painful separation of mother and child. In that respect, not much has changed a lot since the 60s. Societal attitudes towards unwed mothers have made adoption a logical sequence to keeping out-of-wedlock pregnancies permanently hidden.
It was a guilt and shame thing that kept unwed mothers' voices stifled during the McCarthy and post-McCarthy era of the 60s.
But, a small group of birth mothers began in the 1980s to find the children they gave up for adoption in the 60s. They began to come to terms with the loss. Still, it's only been with the advent of the Internet that many more birth mothers began to come out of the closet and speak. Many still only talk about what happened to them with each other in much the same way that veterans of World War II and Vietnam only talked afterwards with those who understood what they had been through. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms have also effected a number of birthmothers.
There has been an undercurrent of thought for some time in today's system to move back to the era when women had no choice. Taking away a woman's right to choose would be a major setback and take us back to the times when giving up a child for adoption was a woman's only option.
When President Bush proclaimed November 2001 as National Adoption Month, he did not mention nor honor in his proclamation the large group of American women who lost their children to adoption. He did not present a plan of prevention of unplanned teen pregnancies or a way to provide free daycare to help financially strapped mothers keep, rather than give up their babies to the adoption industry. But then I supposed he wouldn't since the Edna Gladney Home in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the biggest contributors to the National Council for Adoption to help keep birth records closed, generously donated money to the Bush presidential campaign. So, he didn't address the issue of opening birth records either, which in California have been closed since the Depression era. Closed birth records cut adoptees off from knowing who they are because the system is keeping their birth certificates locked up tight and hidden as a way they say of protecting somebody somewhere. It's certainly not birth mothers they're helping because the majority of them do want to be found. Adoption is an antiquated system filled with a strong need to hide and keep people hidden.
Even though U.S. women have progressed since the 60s in the areas of education and upward economic mobility and many single women are raising children on their own today, there is still a stigma about anything related to a woman having a baby outside of the confines of marriage. I see it in the way that stories about single mothers get reported (or don't get reported) in the media. Young women are made to sound like criminals if they want to keep their children.
One-hundred and forty million people in the U.S. have an adoption in their immediate families. Engrained views and practices pertaining to loss and sex and adoption help keep many, like the birthmother in Sacramento, veiled and hidden. In this respect, the U.S. tends to fall behind every other industrialized country most of which have stopped separating the natural mother from her child after it is born except in extreme situations.
The woman that I stood listening to in Sacramento was coerced into giving her child up for adoption in the 60s. She was then encouraged to keep the whole thing hidden. Her story stayed that way for over 30 years. This mother's day, I would like to honor her and all birthmothers who lost their children to adoption.
"Invisible Veil" © copyright 2002 by Margaret Benshoof-Holler
Author of: Burning
of the Marriage Hat
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