They never forgot
In a conspiracy of silence, more than a million pregnant and unmarried young women and girls were forced to surrender their babies in postwar America. Then they were expected to return to normal living. Most never could.
“For all those years, I was mourning the loss of the baby,” said Sperrazza, who now lives in Edina. “I always wanted the baby back.”
When the baby turned the corner, 19 years old and “5 feet 8 with a size 9 shoe,” Sperrazza knew her old life was over. “It was like I had been digging a hole for 19 years,” she said. “A hole of sorrow.”
Like so many women of her generation, Sperrazza, now 62, dug and dug, but never escaped her pain. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Between 1945 and the early 1970s, an estimated 1.5 million unwed American girls and young women, most between ages 16 and 23, surrendered their babies for non-family adoptions. In a unified voice, their parents, clergy and a new breed of professional social workers told them that this was for their own good. The girls were encouraged to get on with their lives, to forget.
If only they could.
The aftermath of these decisions is only now being fully comprehended. Many women who gave up babies fought depression, developed traumatic stress disorders or turned to alcohol and drugs to numb their chronic grief. Others became super-achievers to prove to their parents that they could have been a fine mother. Some spoke regretfully of how they remained emotionally distant from the children they later had. Others never had another child because they felt it betrayed the baby they surrendered.
“Many women said to me, ‘Have you met anyone else who feels the way I do?’ That made me want to weep,” said Ann Fessler, author of “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade.” Fessler, an adoptee herself, spent many days at the University of Minnesota archives researching her book.
“They had been living with the secret, the shame, the feeling of loss for 30, 40 years,” she said, “and they thought something was wrong with them. No one had ever asked.”
‘Visiting an ailing aunt’
No matter where they grew up, or how old they were when they got pregnant, their stories are stunningly similar. They were mostly “good” girls who got into what was considered bad trouble.
Far from being the “sluts” they were labeled, some got pregnant the first time they had sex or were admittedly clueless about birth control, reproduction or how a baby is born. “I had no idea about protected sex,” said Mary L. Johnson, 62, of Maple Plain, who is featured in Fessler’s book.
Many were in long-term relationships with the baby’s father. About half married him; others were abandoned by the father, or never told him about the pregnancy. A few risked their lives to get illegal abortions; others bravely raised their child alone, although most families would not consider bringing such shame upon themselves. For them, adoption was the only option.
“My parents were very, very angry,” said Johnson, who was 17 and “madly in love” with her hockey-playing boyfriend when she got pregnant. At the time, she was a Girls’ State representative, editor of the yearbook and in the top 10 in her class. Her father admonished her to tell no one. “He’d take care of it,” she said.
That meant doing whatever was necessary to hide the pregnancy. When even two girdles or an oversized winter coat couldn’t hide a growing belly, girls disappeared to care for “a sick aunt” or to be treated for their own mysterious “illness,” such as a kidney infection or mononucleosis. They lived secretly in one of hundreds of religion-affiliated or private and secular maternity homes that sprang up nationwide through organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and the Florence Crittenton Mission. There, residents typically were assigned chores and a pseudonym.
Johnson, nee Mary Gordon, laughs at the name she was given at a home for unwed mothers in St. Paul: “Madonna Gardner.” She offers a wry smile as she recalls going with other pregnant girls to the drugstore, all wearing fake wedding rings given to them by the nuns.
But the chipper tax accountant’s mood shifts when recounting her birth story. Like most girls, she labored alone, “a long, terrible night and most of the next day,” until her newborn girl was whisked away by the nuns to be baptized. On the day she was to return home, the nuns let her hold her baby once. Forty-four years later, she still cries. “Even giving birth didn’t have that wrenching feeling,” she said.
Sperrazza, who was 16 when she got pregnant, remembers looking through the nursery glass at the bassinet in the back of the room by itself. “My lost child,” she said.
Kathy Pennington, 50, of Minneapolis, was 15 when she delivered daughter Michelle in California in 1971. On the day she was to leave the hospital, Pennington panicked. “I remember knowing that I had to memorize her face.” She asked her mother to please come look. “I wanted validation. I wanted someone to say, ‘Oh, my God, she’s beautiful.’ ” Her mother refused. “I can’t just go look at that baby,” she told her daughter, “and walk away.”
‘A perfect storm’
Many women walked away and into more trouble. Pam Hodgson, 59, of Minneapolis, gave up a baby boy in 1967 when she was 19. Her boyfriend “dumped me like a hot potato.” She returned to college in Texas and started smoking pot and drinking. Her grades plummeted. She became depressed. “You could have asked me, ‘Did the adoption affect [your] life?’ and I would have said no. I would never have connected those things. It’s strange the way you absolutely have to shut yourself down.”
It was a complicated, albeit short-lived time, Fessler said, “a perfect storm” made up of an upwardly mobile middle class (which viewed out-of-wedlock pregnancy as low-class), a dearth of birth-control options and sex education, a skyrocketing interest in adoption and the professionalization of social workers, many of whom labeled unwed mothers as “neurotic,” and thus unfit to raise babies.
Today, “we’re night-and-day different in how we understand adoption and how we understand families,” said Barb McGuire, director of domestic adoption at Children’s Home Society and Family Services. “How we ever thought we could help people by telling them to shove that down and forget it. Now the decisions are made by birth parents on behalf of themselves and this child long-term.”
Playwright Lily Baber Coyle, whose “Watermelon Hill” was produced by St. Paul’s Great American History Theatre in 2001, also struggled to find “a good antagonist” for her play, which is inspired by the book “Shadow Mothers” by Minneapolis author and birth mother Linda Back McKay. “Watermelon Hill” is what taunting boys called one home for unwed mothers in St. Paul.
“You think it’s going to be the nuns, the priests, the parents, maybe the boyfriend,” Coyle said. “It was just society as a whole. Parents didn’t really want to do this, but Dad will lose his job if he has a bastard grandchild. School will kick her out and the Catholic Church thought they were doing them a favor.”
A short time later, Roe vs. Wade passed, the Pill became widely available and the women’s movement gave them a voice. “Even if they didn’t believe in having an abortion, Roe vs. Wade opened up choices and women were more in charge of those choices,” Fessler said. “That’s what made it so hard for so many of these women. Even a few years later, they would have been able to continue in school, raise their child.”
Like Michelle Hull. The 32-year-old from Willmar, Minn., was one of nearly 100 women from across the country who responded to a Star Tribune inquiry about birth mothers forced to give up their babies. While her own mother relinquished a daughter in 1972 before Hull was born, Hull gave birth to a son in 1993, returned to high school to graduate with her classmates, and reports that Tyler, now 14, is “polite with great grades. The thought of giving him up. He’s been such a joy.”
A new generation
Others did find joy, too, in supportive spouses, in other children and, for many, in reconnecting at last. Some returned to adoption agencies to assist in their search, paying several hundred dollars; others ran into snags and hired private searchers. Many now search on the Internet. They all emphasized that they wanted nothing but to know that their children were all right, that life had been good to them.
Pennington struggled with substance abuse on and off for several years. The divorced mother of three other children, she’s been clean for a dozen years. On Christmas Eve of 2002, she got her “happy ending” when she and Michelle met face to face after many weeks of writing, e-mailing and long phone calls.
Pennington’s mother, who once could not look through the glass, got to meet Michelle. “She was relieved to know she did the right thing. And it was the right thing to do,” Pennington said. “[Michelle] had a much better life than I would have been able to give her at 15.”
Hodgson, who quit drinking 20 years ago, contacted Lutheran Social Se rvices in August 2000 and was reconnected with her son, Calvin, within two months. He was in his mid-30s, “and he looked exactly like my ex-boyfriend. What a shock.” Calvin’s adoptive father wrote Hodgson a letter, too. “The happiest day of our life,” he told her, “was the saddest day of yours.”
And Johnson, married for 32 years, went on to have a son and daughter with her first husband, and helped to raise second husband Larry’s two sons from a previous marriage. In 1990, Catholic Charities helped her locate Ann. Today, birth mother and daughter exchange e-mails and photographs. The Johnsons have taken two vacations with Ann’s adoptive parents.
Still, a world of hurt lurks just below the surface. “The first night I came home without her, I screamed and cried all night,” Johnson remembers. “My father came in and said, ‘That is the last time I ever want to hear anything about this ever again.’ He never did.
“Today, we consider those things hurtful. Back then, I was getting what I deserved. I know better now.”
The foreign-adoption double standard
The process has improved in America, but not overseas.
However, her article (“They never forgot,” July 8 ) did not mention the lives of the quarter-million foreign women who have been forced to surrender their children in subsequent decades. In reaction to the perceived lack of adoptable children in the United States following the “baby scoop,” Americans have looked to foreign countries. Currently, about 20,000 children from countries such as China, Russia, Guatemala and South Korea are brought to the United States each year to be adopted. Very few are true orphans.
I found it particularly telling that a representative of Children’s Home Society and Family Services, a St. Paul agency that performed 777 international adoptions last year, was quoted as saying that today the agency is “night-and-day different in how we understand adoption and how we understand families.” There seems to be a glaring double standard between how adoption agencies now understand the human rights of American families and how they understand those of foreign families.
The current situation of single mothers being forced to surrender their children in South Korea almost exactly mirrors the situation in the United States a generation ago. Yet despite our understanding that separating American mothers from their children was a “conspiracy of silence,” the broader American society views doing exactly the same thing to foreign mothers as “humanitarian.”
I hope that articles such as Rosenblum’s contribute to giving a human face not only to American mothers, but also to the foreign mothers of international adoptees. They are all mothers with human rights, and they all deserve to be treated as such.
Jane Jeong Trenka, internationally adopted to Minnesota from South Korea, is a writer living in Seoul.
In adoption, wishes of the mother do matter
Children’s Home Society is dedicated to improving conditions worldwide.
Madonna W. King
Published: July 27, 2007
In response to Jane Jeong Trenka’s July 19 counterpoint, “The foreign-adoption double standard,” we want to assure Trenka and others that Children’s Home Society & Family Services performs due diligence in regard to a birth mother’s wishes for her child.
Our agency has been facilitating domestic adoptions since 1889 and international adoptions since 1970. Our work with thousands of birth mothers has shaped our practice to better address their needs. Not only are birth mothers faced with grief over the loss of their child, in some cases they face alienation or endangerment due to the stigma of becoming pregnant outside of marriage.
In the United States, services for women in this situation have evolved to better meet their needs. However, we know firsthand that much work still needs to be done, here and abroad, when factors like poverty, governmental restrictions on family planning, societal norms and lack of education contribute to millions of children lacking the permanency of a home.
Children’s Home Society & Family Services is first and foremost a human-service organization that is committed to improving conditions for women and their children. One way is through counseling services for women facing an unplanned pregnancy, to help them make the best decision for themselves and their children; a vast majority of the women decide to parent, and we help them find resources to do so. In India, we provide a safe haven for pregnant women to remain until they can safely return to their communities to raise their children. We also developed and implemented an educational campaign to help prevent the practice of female infanticide.
Our expertise is sought by welfare and public-policy leaders in other countries to help them improve their services to women and children. Reflecting what we’ve learned in our domestic work, we are laying the foundation for more open-adoption relationships in other countries; this benefits birth mothers and gives children a better sense of identity.
Women and children benefit from our International Child Welfare programs, which provide financial, educational and medical resources, helping to keep children in their communities, cared for by their parents or extended families, and out of foster care or orphanages.
In an ideal world, all women would be able and willing to parent their children and provide them with a stable life in a society that supports and values them. There is so much more work to do, here and abroad, to make that a reality.
Madonna W. King is president and CEO of Children’s Home Society & Family Services.
Now, the reason why a letter like the one that follows is a little dangerous is not because I’m afraid that I’ll get sued or ostracized from the “adoption community,” but because readers might be led into thinking that it is just a few bad apples wrecking the whole barrel for everyone — when in fact the whole system itself is sick and that is what warrants attention.
My last response, unpublished
Beginning with Gail Rosenblum’s article “They Never Forgot” (July 7), which told the stories of the natural mothers of adopted people, the Star Tribune has been very generous in providing a forum for free speech around the very sensitive topic of adoption. In response to my commentary, “The foreign-adoption double standard: The process has improved in America, but not overseas” (July 19), which aimed to call attention to human rights of the mothers of children adopted internationally, Children’s Home Society & Family Services (CHSFS) put forth a counter-commentary about their work in international adoption, specifically citing India.
Although I do not doubt the good intentions of CHSFS, nor do I dispute that children should grow up in families, it should be noted that Children’s Home Society (CHS), which in 2003 merged with another agency to form the current organization called CHSFS, was named as one of three U.S. adoption agencies involved in a 2005 Indian court case that ended in criminal convictions.
The ruling found that 10 workers from Tender Loving Care Home in Hyderabad had fabricated over 79 relinquishment documents of children for the purposes of international adoption, and that fees paid by
unsuspecting American adoptive parents resulted in “wrongful gain” for the persons convicted, as well as “wrongful loss to the state and biological parents.”
The judgment is in the public domain, and those familiar with international adoption are well aware of the frequent scandals that naturally arise when sums of money – often exorbitant by foreign standards — are exchanged to facilitate the mass immigration of children to the U.S.
My objective in mentioning this criminal conviction, therefore, is simply to remind the informed Star Tribune general readership that we will never know the whole reality of adoption until we have full transparency from international adoption agencies and their foreign affiliates. We will also not know the full story until we hear from the mothers of the children who were adopted — whether they are Indian, Korean, Chinese, Ethiopian, Guatemalan, or American.
Any public discussion about the practice of adoption, therefore, must begin with truthful and complete disclosure. Excellent investigative journalism and public forums such as this are one way to nurture a mature debate. Thanks again to the Star Tribune for opening up this discussion.