Many young, single, pregnant women in the years between 1945 and 1973 (when abortion was legalized) were coerced into surrendering their babies – one and one half million of them! – for adoption by couples they did not know. These were closed adoptions and the records were sealed. The women lived in silence for decades with the pain, guilt, and shame brought about by their actions. Many adoptees, too, were damaged by the belief that they were thrown away or unwanted children. Some of the stories of these women are retold by Ann Fessler in her book, The Girls Who Went Away.
Though my status as mother was conferred by open adoption, I first learned about this “bad period” in adoption history during my indoctrination into the ways and advantages of openness. We learned that the two most commonly asked questions by adoptees are: Who do I look like? Why was I given away? Open adoption answers those questions and provides a better foundation for the lives of adoptees, we were told.
As I read the stories of closed adoption and the reunions that sometimes occurred 30 or 40 years later, the significance of these questions was confirmed. Women spoke of seeing their child and immediately recognizing him or her because s/he looked like her or the father or some other relative. Mannerisms or talents or the sound of his/her voice was the same. Women also spoke of the relief it gave both mother and child to tell or hear the story of pregnancy and birth, the story that revealed the child had been wanted and loved from the beginning.
The pain and anguish, not to mention anger and depression, in these stories is so overwhelming that, as an adoptive parent, I began to feel guilty myself for being on the side that received the child. To make matters worse, I remembered that Emily’s birth mother told me not long ago that it gets harder, not easier, to see Emily as she matures into a young woman… But we have a FULLY OPEN ADOPTION! How can that be? Had I been lied to by the agency? Was all this openness no better than the paradigm for adoption used in the “bad period”? Emily’s birthmother and I had certainly appreciated each other over the years; and our girl felt loved by both of us. But was all this communication just reopening a wound?
Then another memory came to mind. I took a class in theology school taught by a wonderful professor who was also the father of three children I had done some babysitting for in my teenage years. He was talking about the difficultly or pain that God the Father must have felt in letting go of his Son Jesus – a son he loved — to experience a gruesome human death – though the death would benefit all of humanity. The professor also talked about letting go of his oldest son who was, at the time, moving on to college “just when [the son] was getting interesting.” I chuckled to myself, thinking: his wife has been doing all the parenting. Now that the son is old enough to have an adult conversation, his dad is finally engaged and he is going to miss that.
Now that I am a parent too, I view my professor’s comment somewhat differently. We parents spend a lot of time with our children taking care of and enjoying them when they are young. But as they mature, their personalities solidify and we interact with them in different ways that are stimulating and exciting. They impress us with their ideas, their energy, and their passions.
It occurred to me – Emily’s birth mother is missing THAT. She sees this complete, vital young woman in Emily, but she doesn’t have access to her on a daily basis the way I do. The grief goes on. She and I have done this adoption-thing better than most people, but the grief goes on anyway.