Forced to Give Up Their Babies

Teenage pregnancy is a complex and often emotionally charged issue. Suddenly the teens—usually with their parents—are faced with difficult choices: Should the girl get married or, perhaps, raise the child on her own? Maybe she would prefer adoption—the kind where she can select the child’s parent. Then again, she may choose to terminate the pregnancy. Girls didn’t always have so many options. Before the introduction of the birth control pill and the sexual revolution of the ’60s, before Roe v. Wade—the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion—and before there was open discussion of adoption, a girl “in trouble” typically followed a single path: She waited out the pregnancy at a no-frills maternity home, then surrendered her child for adoption. In her new book The Girls Who Went Away, Ann Fessler, a 56-year-old adoptee, talked to more than 100 of the estimated 1.5 million women who gave up their babies in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, only to return home and pretend the births had never happened. Three of these women spoke to PEOPLE about their experiences and their reunions with children they never thought they would see again.


She asked to hold her baby just for a minute. No, said the nurse

When my parents sent me to the Sophia Little Home in Cranston, R.I., I was 17 and seven months pregnant by my boyfriend, a 19-year-old sailor. The youngest girl there was 14 and the oldest was 22. I spent the next two months doing arts and crafts. We were told not to tell each other our last names. We never talked about what was going to happen to our bodies. There was no help to prepare us for the grief that was to lie ahead.

The birth was humiliating. I was dropped off at the hospital entirely on my own. After laboring alone all night, I was taken to a big room and strapped to the delivery table. In the lamp over my head I could see the reflection of the child being born. When they noticed that I would see, they tipped it away; the child was for them to see, not for me.

I named the baby Chris and asked every day to see him. A social worker said, “I have these papers, and your father wants them signed now.” In a file she wrote, “We are going to have problems with this girl. She talks about that baby all the time.” Several days after the birth, the head of the hospital showed up. I said, “You can’t keep me from him. He’s mine.” She said, “Yes, unfortunately he is, and let’s hope it doesn’t happen again.” Some woman put me in a wheelchair and pushed me up to the nursery window. I asked, “Can I hold him?” She said, “No. Are you done?” Then the social worker took Chris away. Back at home, we never discussed that I had had a baby. But I always had the idea that I would start looking for my child when he was 18. I told my husband three months before we married, “I have a child who is going to be part of my life someday.” He was like, “Cool.”

But I realized I was afraid of my son: What if he is mean, or mad that I did this? When an intermediary located Kurt (the name given by the couple who had adopted him), he was 21. I was not ready for seeing a full-grown adult. At our first meeting, I told him, “You know, they never let me touch you.” Afterward I fell apart. I couldn’t work or sleep for six months; all I did was cry. I couldn’t believe that I had let my parents do this to me. I started seeing a psychiatrist. It was devastating to realize I had no voice at all over something so life-changing as having a child. Today, Kurt and I have a close relationship. Looking back, I just wish I had been older. Then I would have had the power to resist.


Meeting her son—and the couple who raised him—was momentous

It was 1968 in Simi Valley, Calif. I was 16 and dating Tony. We decided we needed to tell our parents that I was pregnant. We waited probably longer than we should have; I think I was 10 weeks along. My parents had Tony’s parents come over. In those days, if you were pregnant and not married, you weren’t an “expectant mother.” I was an “unwed mother,” which had a serious stigma. It meant that I was promiscuous and the baby was “illegitimate.” I knew I wasn’t anything like that—I had never been intimate with anyone before my boyfriend—and “illegitimate” conjured up a lot of images: lower-class, trashy families. I felt like I was shaming my baby.

My parents made the decision for me to go to a home. I never remember feeling for a second that it was my choice. And I had never been away from home before. I was terrified. The home was run by the Salvation Army, with a long, dorm-like room. There had to have been 20 beds in it. Our names weren’t used, so you had to listen for your number called over the loudspeaker. I was No. 4552—like an inmate. I was checked for STDs because it was assumed I had them. It was so insulting. I was so miserable. My dad finally came and got me, but it wasn’t a good scene. Back home, I had to lock the door to my room. At one point he threw me across the living room. My mom was angry too that I was pregnant and living in her home. It wasn’t until I was about 30 that I found out she was adopted! She saw in me the same situation her mother was once in. Later she told me she didn’t want to find her birth mother because she didn’t want to be rejected again. “That bitch better not show up at my door,” she said, and she had the most furious look on her face I had ever seen.

My parents took me to the hospital. It was the same day astronauts first landed on the moon, and my dad left to go watch that on TV. Michael was born at 11:30 that night. I got to see him, and that was really important to me. I did get to hold him. But to keep me from bonding with the baby, the hospital kept me tethered to the bed with a catheter for five days and blatantly lied, telling me he was in an incubator. A few weeks later I went to the county clerk’s office to sign papers. My parents took me and Tony. I had a little blanket and thought, “We’ll pass this along to our son’s new parents.” And I remember the lady saying, “They won’t be needing the blanket.” When we came out of that office, my dad tried to put his arm around me. I distinctly remember jerking my shoulder away. I thought, the innocence is gone, my youth is gone.

In 1999, Michael tracked down my name and mother’s address and left his contact information. I was cautious. I called a lawyer, and we did a DNA test. Then I called Tony, his father. We lived together for a year after the birth, but we couldn’t put it behind us. We both married other people but reunited to meet our son and then to meet the people who raised him. It was momentous. I’m very aware that he has a mother and father who raised him, and they’re his family. And yet we do have this relationship, and I can never just be his friend. I have to temper my instincts to smother him, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have those feelings. I never had other children. I felt that it would almost be a betrayal of Mike. Now I need to make whatever concessions I have to, because I want him to feel comfortable. I lost this relationship so many years ago, and now here it is—what I’ve always wanted. It has come back to me.


Her dad wasn’t going to allow his daughter to be labeled a bad girl

I was madly in love with my boyfriend. When I got pregnant at 16, my parents were surprisingly supportive. They never belittled me; there was never any yelling. They invited him and his parents over to discuss the situation. When he said he wouldn’t marry me, their plan for him to get a job and for me to take care of the baby fell apart. I thought I was the only one whose boyfriend didn’t marry her. How ashamed I was, how embarrassed. The priest at our Catholic church had the situation all figured it. This happened routinely. I hid my pregnancy under tent dresses and finished my junior year of high school. At seven months, I was sent to St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Dorchester, Mass. My parents decided I would tell my boyfriend I’d had a miscarriage and made up stories to cover my absence—that I was working as a camp counselor; that I had mononucleosis.

My mother, best friend and cousin visited me. But when I went into labor, I was totally alone in my room until a nun took me to the hospital. She didn’t say “goodbye” or “good luck.” Nothing. No one had told me what to expect. It was very frightening. I was allowed to hold and feed my baby girl, whom I named Madlyn, after my mother. But in the end I was given no choice. My father was a policemen; his word was law in our house. Dad wasn’t going to allow his daughter to be labeled a bad girl or his granddaughter a bastard. I know he wanted the best for me and for her. But when I signed those papers, I knew that wasn’t right. I might have been 17, but I would have been a good mother.

I went back to high school and my boyfriend, but I never told him what I had been through. Years later, I ran into him and we had a cup of coffee. I told him about our daughter. He was very blasé. As for myself, I eventually married, had two daughters, got divorced, then remarried and had another daughter. I’d always planned to search for Madlyn when she was 21, but then my daughter Jacqueline died of leukemia and I was grieving. When I was 47, I started looking, at first on the Internet. When that didn’t work, my husband suggested a private investigator, who found her in two weeks. I spent weeks composing a letter. I waited weeks to call, and when I did, she seemed wary. She had a good life and great parents. But I didn’t care what her tone was. I just wanted to keep her talking. She agreed to a meeting, and I drove the housekeeper crazy that day. I wanted everything to be perfect. When she walked up the stairs of this house, I just … it’s indescribable. I just couldn’t stop hugging and kissing her. The best part was, she was kissing me back.

I never confronted my father about sending me away; it wouldn’t have served a purpose. But after his death my mother admitted she felt guilty. I didn’t realize until she said “I’m sorry” that I was looking for that. Those words were very powerful.

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